Margot Robbie shines in “Birds of Prey”

Wesley Stenzel, Arts & Entertainment Editor

It’s been four years since “Suicide Squad,” the critically maligned but wildly popular antihero movie that introduced Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn. In that film, Quinn served as a comic relief sidekick to Will Smith’s Deadshot and Joel Kinnaman’s Rick Flagg, and also functioned as the movie’s primary narrative connection to the Joker. Now, with two Oscar nominations under her belt, Robbie returns to the DC universe as the star and producer of “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).”

When the movie begins, Harley has just broken up with the Joker, and is struggling to find a new direction for her life. After an evening at a seedy nightclub, Harley finds herself entangled in a chaotic criminal caper that also involves singer Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), and assassin Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). The various characters all have distinct personalities and motivations — Lance wants to protect her young friend Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), Montoya desires justice, and Bertinelli seeks vengeance — which makes their eventual team up reluctant and short-lived, especially compared to other super-teams like the Avengers or the Justice League.

This colorful collection of characters makes “Birds of Prey” unique in the comic book movie landscape –– the un-superpowered, sleazy cast has a lot more in common with comedic crime movies like “The Nice Guys” and “Baby Driver” than it does with “Wonder Woman” or “Aquaman.”

One of the movie’s greatest assets is its setting — Gotham City. While Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy emphasized the city’s skyscrapers and mansions, and last year’s “Joker” maintained a grimy, nihilistic take on Batman’s hometown, “Birds of Prey” depicts a cartoonishly over-the-top wonderland of warehouses and alleyways, bursting at the seams with mobsters and mayhem. It feels like an R-rated take on the Gotham of the “Arkham” video games or the 1990s “Batman: The Animated Series.”

One of Gotham’s rising criminal overlords is Ewan McGregor’s campy antagonist Black Mask, who shares the on-screen energy of the Adam West “Batman” series and Captain Cold from TV’s “The Flash.” The Scottish actor’s American accent is inconsistent, his temperament is wildly unpredictable, and his motivations are often unclear. His performance isn’t good, per se, but it’s bafflingly mesmerizing to witness.

The rest of the performances are more straightforward and relatively by-the-numbers. The exception is Robbie, who miraculously turns a character that should only work in cartoons into a bona fide R-rated action hero. It’s like her depiction of Tonya Harding in “I, Tonya” and the Harley Quinn of “Suicide Squad” merged into a single entity.

Some may be tempted to categorize “Birds of Prey” as a bad movie: the dialogue is absurd, the characters are pretty one-note, and the plot is largely nonsensical. But it achieves everything that it sets out to achieve. It has some of the best action of any superhero movie, and there’s an abundance of laugh-out-loud moments. Director Cathy Yan and writer Christina Hodson deserve kudos for crafting one of the strangest, most unique comic book movies of the last 10 years. This movie has an animated prologue, a musical number, multiple roller-skating sequences, a hyena, and the most beautiful breakfast sandwich ever depicted on film. It’s unbelievably entertaining, and its sheer chaotic energy is a sight to behold.