Charlie’s Angels is a weird property to take on in 2019. With a premise born from both second-wave feminism and good old fashioned sexism, its gender politics are all over the place. While Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts’ original series was semi-groundbreaking in its portrayal of independent, crime-fighting women, the show was often put into the “Jiggle TV” camp and written off as misogyny masquerading as empowerment. The early 2000s films—which, I admit, I adore—put a campy spin on the franchise but kept its “girl power” mentality while making the Charlie/Angels dynamic a little grosser with this iconic quote: “Once upon a time there were three very different little girls who grew up to be three very different women with three things in common: they’re brilliant, they’re beautiful, and they work for me. My name is Charlie.”
Needless to say, planting this franchise in our modern world (and new ideas of feminism) is tricky. I figured Elizabeth Banks’ Charlie’s Angels would likely keep its source material’s stale brand of “empowerment” but make up for it in snappy good fun. Unfortunately, it only partially delivered on that front. While Banks and her cast sparkle on screen, her hit-or-miss direction and writing make for some awkward pacing and dialogue.
Banks dares to dream a little bigger than her predecessors by taking the iconic Townsend Agency international. The Angels are now a global network of women spies, assisted by numerous “Bosleys” (here, the moniker refers to a rank rather than one specific person). Two such Bosleys are Rebekah (Banks) and John (Patrick Stewart), who is retiring. When a scientist named Elena Houghlin (Naomi Scott) attempts to blow the whistle on an unsafe piece of tech at Brock Industries, she gets a target on her back, causing Angels Jane (Ella Balinska) and Sabina (Kristen Stewart) to step in and find out who wants her dead, and why.
Led by Rebekah, this trio does some globetrotting, some fighting, and some major wig-wearing. The combat scenes are a pretty good time, especially in showcasing the chemistry between the three leads. While Scott’s Disney Channel roots are somewhat visible in Elena, newcomer Balinska makes a hell of an impression as the self-assured and statuesque Jane. But I know we all want to talk about Kristen Stewart as Sabina, the zealous quipster; every time she smiles, you can’t help but do the same. Even though she has to make the most of some cringe-worthy dialogue, there’s nothing better than watching Stewart flaunt her natural charisma (which was so smothered back in her Twilight days) and have a blast in this role.
While the punches hit hard and the glitz certainly satisfies, the dialogue simply has too many doozies to ignore. When it comes to a mainstream genre film like this, audiences are easy to please, but my fellow theatergoers and I really didn’t know what to do with some of these lines. Banks, a criminally underrated actress, is sharp as a tack and shows expert comedic timing in every role she plays… so why are so many of these jokes D.O.A.? At times, the writing feels like it was ripped out of a Netflix original—which would explain why Noah Centineo is in this, I guess.
While the dialogue leaves much to be desired, the plot has enough twists and turns to keep you entertained, although some are more predictable than others. With all my issues with this film, I only wish I had that one other thing to keep me going: that little flutter my heart does when I see badass women doing badass things. While I generally dislike this vague and often half-assed image of “girl power,” I also fall for it in even the most cookie-cutter moments—like the ultra-calculated “she’s got help” scene in Avengers: Endgame. I was surprised to find Charlie’s Angels a bit lacking in this arena, as certain scenes with heart-fluttering potential fizzled out due to lackluster direction. Thanks to the excellent cast, however, there are still some fulfilling moments.
One thing that’s stuck with me is Stewart’s line about women making good spies. As she ties up a sleazy playboy (Crazy Rich Asians’ Chris Pang) who’s way too into her to realize what she’s doing, Sabina explains why women have an advantage in her line of work: if you’re pretty, nobody expects anything of you, and if you’re not, you’re rendered practically invisible. Charlie’s Angels obviously focuses on the former type, those who can weaponize their sexual appeal like Sabina’s doing in this very scene. But what about the latter type of lady? I’m reminded of “The Unremarkables,” an episode of The Truth (a scripted fiction podcast) which centers on a couple in their late 50s who get recruited as assassins thanks to their, well, unremarkableness. I’d be interested to see some Plain Janes kick some ass on the big screen.
Verdict: 2 out of 5 stars
Charlie’s Angels is sort of like its soundtrack’s lead single, “Don’t Call Me Angel”; you like everyone in it and expect it to be fun, but it just sort of… falls flat. You can definitely skip this one, but if you must go, go for the cast—I didn’t even mention how good Sam Claflin is as a self-important Silicon Valley type, or how much Patrick Stewart gets to ham it up later in the film—and then stick around for the star-studded mid-credits scene.