It’s 2019, which means every week we must have a new IP reboot to release on 4,000 screens. This week’s submission is Charlie’s Angels, the latest attempt to kick-start a franchise based on the iconic late-’70s glam-a-rama detective series. Apparently “reboot” is not a word the film’s marketing team is willing to use, insisting that the film is, in fact, an extension of the first cinematic reboot of Aaron Spelling TV creation at the turn of the millennium. That’s right – it’s been nearly 20 years since the first Charlie’s Angels movie. I hope we all feel sufficiently old but nevertheless primed for more gun-toting, babe-tastic spy games.
Far be it from me to argue with a filmmaker’s stated intent, but this version of Charlie’s Angels is as much a sequel to the early-aughts McG monstrosities as those monstrosities were a literal extension of the original TV series. The only thing connecting any of them is the old guy on the speaker phone and three women made to prance around in all manner of absurd costumes in their sleuthing pursuit. That’s quite a good thing for this new film, which pivots away from the rampant objectification that was heretofore a branded hallmark, instead regenerating the premise of a globe-trotting trio of badass women into a pointed commentary against the long-standing understood requirement that hotness must equal sexually exploitative. That is clearly the work of Elizabeth Banks, the director and sole credited screenwriter, who delivers the first iteration of this universe with a female gaze.
Quite refreshing, IP fatigue be damned, to witness this all-woman spy team be celebrated as opposed to merely presented, kicking ass without also being required to show ass. The objectification of its female leads has been so ingrained in the Charlie’s Angels mythos that simply choosing not to objectify is itself an act of subversion, but Banks pushes further than that, welcoming every narrative opportunity to objectify her characters just so they can comment upon the degrading preposterousness of the framework. The opening scene builds the expectation of objectification – Kristen Stewart in a platinum blonde wig, projecting a mousy voice as she mock seduces her target – and then obliterates it with a diatribe on men’s insultingly low expectations of women’s agency. It’s an on-the-nose opening salvo, but that’s the point: this is the gong announcing the onset of the new era.
Subtlety isn’t the film’s forte – it’s a slam-bang action vehicle where the explosions have pink glittery accents. This version of Charlie’s Angels is a celebration of both girlhood and womanhood, as much a winking indulgence of youthful naiveté as a souped-up showcase of female strength. As many guns as these Angels wield, as many punches as they throw, they remain women in all aspects, rather than substitutes for the prototypical male. Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, and Ella Balinska are the eponymous Angels, a thoroughly refreshing triad of funky attitude and good humor who are engaging separately and together. There’s a spark of vitality in the casting, and once again it’s all about upending expectations. Scott and Balinska are still relative newcomers, with the former having just announced her star power as the only good part of the live-action Aladdin remake, and the latter working primarily in British television until now. And while Stewart is well-known, she’s largely been an art-house fixture since being mercifully relieved of her Twilight duties. The chemistry of these unlikely stars fuses seamlessly with the quirky comedic verve Banks establishes in her screenplay, and Stewart in particular has a ball with a performance of eccentric comedic perfection, about which the only problem is that Banks didn’t allow her to lean further into the oddity.
That idiosyncratic spirit keeps the film buoyant for its duration, even amid the film’s more glaring flaws. Plot isn’t something worth mentioning in this review, since it would waste as much space as it does in the film. A needlessly labyrinthine setup about black market buyers for a vaguely Alexa-ish alternative energy source that can kill people when not properly calibrated (?!) is the catalyst for the Angels to join forces, and its useful for that reason alone, since these actresses carry the load even as that plot tries to weigh them down. And for all of Banks’ cheeky wit on the page, she isn’t a well-versed action filmmaker, and the resulting set pieces are edited within an inch of their lives. There’s a prevailing messiness to the craft that is often distracting, but somehow it seems of a piece with this casually weird and playfully anarchic girl-power spectacle, which somehow rejuvenates stale IP into something worth sequelizing.