The Angels fly, but not high enough in Charlie’s Angels

Charlie’s Angels wants to justify its existence in 2019 with a positive and action-packed story of female independence, but it’s too generic to soar.

In 1976, audiences were dazzled by the action, charm, and immortal Farrah Fawcett hairstylings of Charlie’s Angels, the story of an elite crime-fighting team of tough and gorgeous women backed by an anonymous millionaire. The show was critically derided but amassed a devoted following, coming as it did in the time of the Women’s Liberation movement. It situated women as both sexy and strong, coming in as part of a wave of shows including Linda Carter’s turn as Wonder Woman.

The series ended in 1981, and it wasn’t until 2000 that, to kickstart a new millennium, theaters returned to the trio. McG’s two features, Charlie’s Angels and the 2003 sequel, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, are campy actioners that want to define the phrase “high octane” but end up being silly guilty pleasures. It still spouted feminism but did so through a decidedly male lens, putting its Angels in porn-inspired costumes and, yet, had a subconsciously prescient need to objectify everyone.

It is with this wide history that director and screenwriter Elizabeth Banks approaches her own take on Charlie’s Angels. The St. Pauli girl costumes may be gone (though they receive a cameo), but it’s hoped that the spirit of the previous features remains, and it does…in the weirdest ways. This new take on Charlie’s Angels seems confused about what exactly it wants to say and thus intrigues audiences with items that aren’t explicitly the Angels themselves. At times self-aware and others willfully ignorant, for tackling a series that’s been so controlled by men, it’s shocking that Banks and crew don’t go further with their girl power message. What should be radical becomes formulaic, if not frivolous in the moment.

Banks’ approach to Charlie’s Angels wants to be inclusive to all women while retaining the glamour and sophistication of the previous films and the TV show. So it’s hard not to watch the movie’s opening credits, images of little girls and women living life, as disingenuous when you have three beautiful women as your leads. On top of that, there’s an untouchable quality to the Angels that’s different from the previous films, especially. Kristen Stewart plays Sabina, a former heiress from Park Avenue turned queer icon; Jane (Ella Balinska) is an elite former MI-6 agent who has trouble making friends. And Elena (Naomi Scott) is a scientist from MIT who becomes a corporate whistleblower when she discovers that the energy device she’s invented has the potential to be an assassination tool.

The script wants this to be both an origin story and a continuation with somewhat clunky results. Sabina and Jane are former partners who seem to harbor a dislike for each other that’s never properly contextualized, short of Sabina reminding Jane that she pushed her off a roof. Newly international, the Angels go from a tight-knit group of individuals, each under the tutelage of a mentor named Bosely, sent on various assignments. This wouldn’t be a problem if the movie opens with Sabina and Jane on an assignment only to establish some mild issue with each other and the eventual reteaming of them to save Elena. Once Scott’s character is introduced, the script eases into a typical narrative of training Elena to be the new Angel.

As characters, each actress is in an entirely different narrative with varying levels of enjoyment for each. Stewart’s Sabina is the MVP, completely running with the silly narrative and gives off a completely darling IDGAF attitude. Stewart easily bounces off the more serious Balinska, softening her character, while relating to Scott’s naive newcomer. Stewart’s androgynous persona also works towards promoting the new concept of femininity the movie espouses, being sexy and playful but able to flirt with anyone. Balinska’s seriousness is better suited to a serious action movie, and most of her jokes run towards the awkward, while Scott is more pleasant, aiming for the broad comedy and nothing else. As a trio, Stewart is the one doing the heavy lifting while the other two don’t pack the same punch.

Banks also peppers the frame with a host of character actors who, in certain instances, end up stealing the movie away completely from the Angels themselves. Banks pulls triple duty as director, screenwriter and actress, though her take on Bosely doesn’t go as far enough as it should. Her Bosely is a former Angel able to rise up the ranks and become a mentor but the film doesn’t bring up the history of sexism in the organization (something Full Throttle hinted at while perceiving it as a detriment) till the final sequence.

Patrick Stewart is there to generally play himself while Sam Claflin plays the same iteration of every character he’s done over the last few years: the douchey, entitled bro willing to throw a woman under the bus for his own purposes. The most surprising angle comes from Jonathan Tucker’s silent assassin, Mr. Hodak. A close cousin to Crispin Glover’s creepy Thin Man from the previous movies, Hodak hints at some of the saucy sexual camp the previous movies touched on.

And yet, like the previous features, there’s something incurably fun in the foolishness. The cars are nice, the costumes the perfect blend of functional and sophisticated. There’s a desire for femininity harbored within the strength and perseverance of the trio. But with a woman finally behind the screen and script, it would have been nice for some self-awareness about the show’s misogyny if it wants to be a new take than acknowledge the old and its faults.

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For better or worse, this is a Charlie’s Angels movie and all that that implies. If you’ve watched the previous movies and enjoyed them, you’ll wish this movie was a bit zanier but will still be compelled.

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