There’s a lot to like in this year’s Charlie’s Angels. But that’s the problem: It’s almost always “like” and not “love”. It certainly ticks all the expected boxes as the latest iteration in the long-running franchise – a trio of beautiful ass-kicking ladies work for a detective agency owned by wealthy and reclusive disembodied-voice-on-a-speaker Charlie Townsend, the operational running of which is managed by Townsend’s right-hand-man Bosley – and even introduces a few new boxes of its own.
It’s got lavish locales around the world, more decadent costume changes than Paris fashion week, explosive shootouts and fisticuffs aplenty. Not to mention strong turns (one of which is exceptional) from its three angelic leads in Kristen Stewart, Ella Balinska, and Naomi Scott. However, all of that is still not enough to stop this new Charlie’s Angels from ending up as nothing more than a frothy but forgettable girl-power romp.
To set the record straight, this isn’t a reboot of the classic franchise that began with the 1970s hairspray-and-go-go-boots TV series and was popularized again by a pair of loudly stylized feature films in the early 2000s (oh and a short-lived 2011 TV series that nobody actually watched). No, this is a straight continuation of what came before. Well, sort of straight, as things get retconned early (via some hilariously badly doctored photos) to reveal that Patrick Stewart’s Bosley here is actually the original, retroactively taking the place of David Boyle in the old show and Bill Murray in the movies. Since that time, Stewart’s Bosley has taken the Townsend Detective Agency global with teams of Angels run by their own Bosley – now a rank more than a name – operating all over the world.
Whenever one of these franchise revivals rear their head, the inevitable question honked from the rafters is always “Why?” and this new globalized approach is one small aspect of the answer to that question. Pulling quadruple duty here as writer, director, producer, while co-starring as one of the new Bosleys (the first Angel to rise to that rank), Elizabeth Banks actually concocts a nifty idea for the bigger part of that answer. From its very opening moments, it’s clear that Banks is tapping into the premise’s female empowerment angle hard. Charlie’s Angels has always been about showcasing immensely capable women outsmarting and outpunching the bad guys (literally), but the past versions have always still been made for the leery male gaze. The original 1970s show even helped to coin the term “jiggle TV” for all the gratuitous frolicking that went on.
That won’t fly In a post-#MeToo world though, and so Banks and co drop the saucy over-sexualization to instead place meaningful emphasis on the gross pitfalls facing women – whether it be being underestimated by cartoonish villains or just made to feel less in the workplace – and how they can vault clean over them. The film’s very narrative stands testament to this. Scott’s Elena Houghlin is a whip-smart engineer with concerns about her invention: a revolutionary energy source named Calisto that could potentially be weaponized in the wrong hands. When her skeevy boss disregards her assessments just so that he can claim glory for himself, it sets into motion a chain of events that leads to Elena coming to the Townsend Agency for help as Calisto is stolen and put up for sale to some nasty customers.
As the Angels, consisting of Balinksa’s former MI-6 agent Jane Kano and Stewart’s infiltration expert Sabina Wilson, come to Elena’s rescue, the story gets threaded through with these moments of men in power either manipulating or underestimating women and paying for it. It’s certainly a rousing sentiment to be applauded, but Banks doesn’t always stick the landing in execution. An early montage showcasing the achievements of young girls around the world is the most obvious example as it feels clumsy and out of place; more TV ad than feature film scene. There are other problems besides just for wobbly messaging though.
Banks’ script could occasionally be considered derivative of other, superior spy action movies (Brian de Palma’s Mission: Impossible, in particular, when it comes to one major third act reveal) and even borrows from earlier instalments of this very franchise. The action is also frequent and frantic enough so you never get bored, but it’s clear that Banks, best known for her comedic work, is still a newcomer in this space. Shootouts are solidly punchy enough, but choppy editing and too-close framing abound whenever the action goes hand-to-hand, resulting in frustrating incoherence.
Ironically, the comedy bits are also rather hit-and-miss, falling flat half the time. This is most definitely more of an issue in the film’s occasionally sluggish opening, as Banks ramps up the sense of bubbly fun later on, including a frantic wigged-out incognito heist and enjoyably silly choreographed dance number right in the middle of an operation.
Scott, as the proverbial fish-out-water, manages to elevate some of the middling punchlines she’s given through quirky charm alone as she slowly morphs from the Angels’ client to their teammate – which also kicks off a whole other commentary thread on ladies uplifting each other. The statuesque Balinksa, as the ramrod straight-woman of the bunch, handles the bulk of the action heavy-lifting and handles it very well, belying her British soapie acting roots. She also gets the strongest emotional arc of the bunch and her cutesy-fumbling romantic chemistry with Elena’s burly nerd assistant Langston (played Noah Centineo) is palpable. It’s Stewart who steals the show though. A quirky wild-child with an undercut and mischievous grin, she barrels through the movie as a veritable force of devil-may-care vitality and queer sexual energy. I could watch an entire movie of just Sabina Wilson doing her thing.
Buoyed by these performances and Banks’ very admirable intentions, you definitely won’t feel like you utterly wasted your time watching this film. As I mentioned in the beginning, there’s enough here to like. Just don’t expect this new Charlies Angels to soar to many significant heights.
PS: Stay seated through the credits for some star-studded (and a few very surprising) cameos!
Last Updated: November 14, 2019