Elizabeth Banks revives the girl-power action franchise with new blood and a solid if formulaic actioner.
If there was ever a time to bring back Charlie’s Angels, this is the moment. Nearly two decades since the last go-around, 2003’s strange and mostly abominable Full Throttle, that one a sequel to the surprise 2000 hit starring Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, and Lucy Liu. Instant relics of the early 2000s, McG’s two Charlie’s Angels films operated completely in the red; each scene was a random smattering of flirty innuendos, self-conscious girl power, and the aggressive male gaze, but they were still radical for starring three women in the action hero roles. They were so consistently ridiculous, they make any of the recent Fast and Furious sequels look as sober and grounded as a John Le Carre novel.
It likewise feels disingenuous to say that McG’s hyperactive jaunts were in the mold of the original ‘70s series, which was less silly but grappled with its own fascinating period politics among its procedural spy hijinks and socially accepted feminism. The cultural history of Charlie’s Angels is scattered, but it feels essential in introducing Elizabeth Banks’ new incarnation of the Angels – a vision that’s rarely subversive, but is sincere and thoughtful even in its most pandering, commodified moments.
Directed by Banks (who also has a story credit), Charlie’s Angels isn’t shy about its desire to be an aspirational empowerment narrative from the opening credits where kooky flashbacks of the three angels have been replaced with a montage of female exceptionalism. And where past angels would suffer regular sexism in silence to accomplish their mission, Sabina (Kristen Stewart playing up her ham side), Jane (newcomer Ella Balinska, who feels natural as an action heroine), and Elena (Naomi Scott doing her best in a dull straight woman role) are more likely to snap someone’s neck than receive lectures about the proper place for a woman.
But surprisingly, this dynamic doesn’t have the metallic corporate tinge that often infects Hollywood’s view toward women. That’s not to say Stewart ever recites the SCUM Manifesto, but there’s a foregrounding of the women’s skills here that exists in concert with their existence as beautiful women. The film takes so much joy in watching these characters be really, really good at their jobs, whether that’s through acrobatic maneuvers, hacking nonsense MacGuffins, smooth-talking their way out of sticky situations, or taking up various haute disguises.
At this point, it may be noticed that there’s barely been a description of the plot. But like so many spy thrillers these days, it’s more about characters looking good doing something than the coherence of that mission. In this case, there’s some prattle about Calisto, a major advancement for sustainable energy that operates based on blockchains and also can be easily manipulated to become a clandestine assassination tool (See, there’s a reason I skipped this!). Similarly, there’s as much emphasis on Elena’s introduction to the world of Charlie’s Angels (rebranded the Townsend Agency) as a corporate whistleblower unwittingly pulled into a larger conspiracy as they alternately track down Peter Fleming (Nat Faxon at his most comfortably hapless) and mute assassin Hodak (Jonathan Tucker nailing the dirtbag chic with the neck tattoos).
But the clothes in this, holy shit… Costumes were a regular part of past incarnations even if the wearer’s dignity was often optional, but there’s so much personality in this imagining. Designed by Kym Barrett, every item of clothing feels designed to stand out, but unexpectedly, for the benefit of the wearer as much as the viewer. It feels impossible to not talk about Stewart’s external transformation into a queer fashion icon, and the film seems fully aware that every outfit needs to not only be memorable but seem impossible to be worn, well, by anyone else in the world.
…a vision that’s rarely subversive, but is sincere and thoughtful even in its most pandering, commodified moments.
Oh, more about the movie? It’s mostly pretty okay, even as it occasionally feels a bit undercooked and one more draft from really feeling comfortable in its own skin. With Pitch Perfect 2, Banks handily proved her ability to wrangle a blockbuster, but her sensibility is still a little bit anonymous even as she knows how to bring out her lead actresses’ chemistry. She has a treasure in Stewart, who’s in full comedienne mode here and having an absolute blast cracking constant jokes and jabbing at the tight-laced Jane.
Stewart is way past having to prove her dramatic bona fides, but it’s nice to be reminded how great her timing can be, even if the last time it was unleashed was the nigh-forgotten misfire American Ultra. She’s fully the beating heart here of the trio, even as the others are as likely to roll their eyes as embrace her after each quip.
Banks, unfortunately, seems far less at home in the myriad action scenes, which too often feel like anodyne John Wick imitations with a few exceptions, including a memorable one-on-one where one of the Angels uses every imaginable object in an office to fight a hulking tough. Too often, battle scenes descend into choppy Krav Maga or hilariously impotent gunfights instead of fluid, character-based scenes.
There are still moments that recall the teamwork of the original series, but necessarily, the film takes a long time to get to the point where everyone is in sync, which may also explain the overall texture. To be clear, this absolutely wants to be a franchise-starter, complete with character dynamics that follow the familiar trajectory of frenemies to best friends.
But honestly, who can blame them for trying? The action scene is still oversaturated with machismo and it’s nice to see three women who don’t feel like they need to compromise their own identities to hang with the men who are hogging the spotlight. Here’s to hoping they can figure out how to make the action more dynamic next time. And please, bring back “Firestarter” next time. It was missed.
Charlie’s Angels high-kicks its way into theaters November 15th.