★★★★☆

Margot Robbie stars as Harley Quinn in Cathy Yan’s spin-off to 2016’s Suicide Squad. But where its predecessor was a mirthless, incoherent mess, Birds of Prey is a chaotic, violent multi-coloured joy; easily the best of DC’s extended universe films to date and the perfect vehicle for its star’s inimitable energy.

Things aren’t going well for Harley Quinn, the former psychiatrist turned supervillain’s moll. Following her exploits in Suicide Squad, she has fallen out of the Joker’s favour and for the first time in a long time, is all on her lonesome. After she impulsively blows up the ACE Chemical Factory where both she and Mr. J were created, she realises that public knowledge of her break-up makes her a target for every nemesis no longer in fear of the Joker’s ire. Drowning her sorrows in spirits and squirty cheese, Harley tells us that it’s time to move on from the mistakes of the past and forge a new identity. Her mantra signals a new, livelier and more confident direction for DC’s Extended Universe that has historically played second-fiddle to Marvel’s cinematic universe.

Elsewhere, Dinah Lance aka Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) has just been promoted from club singer to gangster Roman Sionis’ (Ewan McGregor having the time of his life) personal driver, while detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) is building a case against Sionis in connection with the historic assassination of a Gotham crime family and the disappearance of a valuable diamond. As if things weren’t complicated enough, a mysterious crossbow-wielding assassin calling herself Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has come to town and is bumping off mafiosos.

Under the weight of these disparate threads, the plot frequently strains, particularly in its second-act when the structure becomes deliberately obtuse. Yet the film is effortlessly buoyed by Robbie’s crazy-adorable charisma, while each of the supporting cast essentially stars in their own mini-movies under the rainbow umbrella of Harley’s emancipation. The reward for threading a narrative that only really ties together at its climax – a kinetic, witty sequence set in the misty abandoned theme park that serves as Joker’s hideout – is the sense of a living, breathing Gotham, full of bizarre characters and possibilities.

One of Birds of Prey’s great pleasures is that it tells a Gotham story without having to tell the Gotham story: the adventures of Harley Quinn and associates are not at the centre of some grand narrative, and they are all the better for it. This approach may be a world apart from the dour, derivative realism of last year’s Joker, but its cartoonishness is no less authentic and is a whole hell of a lot more vital.  That vitality is fed by a quintet of excellent performances – the aforementioned Perez, Smollet-Bell, Winstead, and Ella Jay Basco as young picket-pocket Cassie – headed by Robbie – are each is important as the other, fighting their own battles against systemic devaluation, ultimately teaming up not to save the world, but themselves.

The IMAX release of Birds of Prey will be digitally re-mastered into the image and sound quality The IMAX Experience® with proprietary IMAX DMR® (Digital Re-mastering) technology. The crystal-clear images, coupled with IMAX’s customized theatre geometry and powerful digital audio, create a unique environment that will make audiences feel as if they are in the movie. BirdsOfPreyIMAX

Christopher Machell | @MachellFilm