Workplace parity is finally achieved in “Birds of Prey,” a comic-book movie in which women get to engage in the kind of reckless slaughter men have always enjoyed.
And no “Wonder Woman”-style PG-13-rated powderpuffing, either; this is straight-up R-rated violence, served with maximum salt. (No nudity, of course, because we wouldn’t want to traumatize the youth.)
The full title of this DC Comics entry is “Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn,” and it returns the gaudily tinted Ms. Quinn from her scene-stealing antics in “Suicide Squad.” The actress who plays her, Margot Robbie, returns as well.
In “Suicide Squad,” Harley hooked up with Jared Leto’s Joker. The sequel’s cartoon prologue lets us know how that grand relationship ended, much to the relief of anyone who found Leto’s overbearing presence a hindrance to enjoying Robbie’s gum-smacking turn.
“Birds of Prey” gives Harley another creepy mansplainer, in the form of crime lord Roman Sionis. He occasionally turns into the supervillain Black Mask when he puts on — check it out — a black mask.
Ewan McGregor plays Roman, and he seems to have taken his cue from Robbie’s uninhibited style: He’s all sarcasm and adolescent instincts, and he takes great joy in cruelty, of which this movie has a lot.
There is a story line, which comes to us in chockablock fashion, thanks to Harley’s fractured narration. This is actually one of the more inventive things about the movie — it’s fun to try to follow all the tangents of Harley’s overactive mind.
We also meet Roman’s lethally capable chauffeur (the very flexible Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a mysterious crossbow-toting assassin (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, from “Gemini Man”), and a juvenile delinquent (Ella Jay Basco) whose pocket-picking brings about the movie’s excuse for all these people to come together.
Representing law and order is Renee Montoya, a disgruntled cop played with breezy aplomb by Rosie Perez. Sexism in the Gotham Police Department has kept her career in check, so if there’s any possibility of an all-female vigilante crime-fighting squad taking shape, she’s probably in.
Director Cathy Yan launches “Birds of Prey” with a lively beginning, and pulls off an array of genuinely hilarious stuntwork during the climax. In between, the movie idles, searching for some kind of “edge” that will justify its R rating.
Some of this is more unpleasant than the frothy, tongue-in-cheek tone can handle: an entire family massacred, torture involving surgical face removal—real laff-riot stuff. The way McGregor and henchman Chris Messina wallow in their sadism is maybe just a little too gleeful.
That sour aftertaste keeps “Birds of Prey” from developing its full potential. Not that this will stop a sequel, which is well prepared for here.
As the producer of the movie, Robbie shares a lot of screentime with her fellow actors. Her outlandish performance still dominates; she’s like Lucille Ball plopped into a Spandex nightmare, mugging and wise-cracking her way through the chaos. Even when the movie loses focus, she stays razor-sharp.
“Birds of Prey” (2½ stars)
“Suicide Squad” standout Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) returns, this time shed of her bad boyfriend, the Joker — the better to assemble a female team of crime-fighters. This is an R-rated slice of mayhem from DC Comics, with some good jokes, great stunts and a little too much sadism. With Ewan McGregor, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosie Perez.
Rating: R, for violence, language
Opening Friday: Alderwood, Alderwood Mall, Cinebarre Mountlake Terrace, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Stanwood Cinemas, Meridian, Oak Tree, Pacific Place, Seattle 10, Thornton Place, Woodinville, Cascade Mall, Oak Harbor Plaza