The last time we saw Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), in the last scene of "Suicide Squad," she was happily reading a book and sipping an espresso behind bars, only to find herself suddenly freed by her boyfriend, the Joker (Jared Leto).
The Joker is nowhere to be seen in "Birds of Prey," a sleek, diverting, hyper-violent new caper that arrives bearing the cheeky subtitle "(and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)." She isn't the only one who's been emancipated. You might say that the whole movie — a fast, cheap and carefully controlled distraction from the bigger, heavier goings-on at the DC Comics blockbuster factory — has successfully emancipated itself from the dead weight of Leto's Joker, a cinematic non-starter that was recently eclipsed by Joaquin Phoenix's superior upgrade.
"Birds of Prey," directed by Cathy Yan from a screenplay by Christina Hodson, is an impudent blast of comic energy. Light on psychology and devoid of prestige, it's a slab of R-rated hard candy that refuses to take anything, least of all itself, too seriously.
In a blur of bright-colored animation and fast-chattering voice-over, we learn that the former "king and queen of Gotham City" have abruptly called it quits; cue shots of Harley slurping cheese out of a can and commiserating with her newly acquired pet hyena (named Bruce, as in Wayne). Consciously uncoupling yourself from an abusive psychopath might sound like a healthy life decision on paper, but the opposite may be true for Harley. Without the protection of her beloved "Mister J," she finds herself at the mercy of every two-bit thug she ever crossed, maimed or injured, of whom there are almost too many to count.
And so, with her blond pigtails cut short but her roller skates and Louisville Slugger still at the ready, Harley Quinn does what any star of her own standalone brand-extension exercise would do: She gets herself a posse, a dream team, a league of her own. Because she's a lousy planner and doesn't really like other people, this happens largely by accident, and occupies most of the movie's swift 109-minute running time. Harley introduces all the relevant parties with a playfully scatterbrained voice-over, merrily hopscotching across time frames and tying together a convoluted story that has neither the desire nor the need to cohere.
Her unlikely future allies include Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a disgruntled Gotham cop who's hot on her trail, and Helena Bertinelli, aka the Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), whose traumatic origin story, revealed in an O-Ren Ishii-style flashback, has made her lethal with a crossbow if charmingly awkward in the self-promotional department. There's also Dinah, aka Black Canary (a strong Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a songbird with a killer voice and killer fists to match, and a wily teenage thief, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), who goes on the lam with Harley and whose digestive tract becomes a crucial plot point for reasons best left unexamined here.
Dinah and Cassandra are entangled with the story's designated villain, a velvet-suited nightclub owner named Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), whose sadistic schemes center on the acquisition of a valuable diamond. It's too bad that whatever kinky shenanigans Roman gets up to with his knife-wielding henchman (a cheerfully debauched Chris Messina) are mostly left off-screen. Or maybe it's a good thing, since what they really seem to get off on is slicing off the faces of their victims in thin, Fruit Roll-Up-like sheets.
With a soundtrack of busy, dreamy pop covers like "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" or "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," it's all as tasty, chewy and disposable as bubble gum.
The filmmakers haven't exactly imbued the character with untold depths or — apart from a nod to her rebellious childhood, her doctorate in criminal psychology and a familiar vat of acid — done much to embellish her fascinatingly grim back story. But they have turned her from a psycho's plaything into a self-made antiheroine who, with a little help from her friends, can shoulder the weight of her own adventure.
‘Birds of Prey’
› Rating: R for strong violence and language throughout, some sexual and drug material
› Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes
› Theaters: AMC Classic Chattanooga 10, Regal Hamilton Place, AMC Chattanooga 18, AMC Classic Battlefield 10, AMC Classic Majestic 12, AMC Classic Northgate 14 and Cleveland UEC Theatres 14.