I must admit that going into this screening, I had the gnawing feeling that this series — in all its good, bad and clichéd iterations — would be far too played-out to enjoy. After all, who needs another eye-rolling, male-gazey, underwear-dancing spy-babe saga? One (or two) is more than enough. Much to my surprise, however, the multitalented writer/director/producer/actor Elizabeth Banks and her squad of #woke Angels have managed to make the “lady spy” genre feel fresh, contemporary and, for the most part, pretty damn entertaining.
The film opens with a close-up of Kristen Stewart’s Sabina flexing her fun, flirty muscles on an unsuspecting male target as she performs a sultry aerial acrobatic routine in a sparkly Barbie-Doll-pink get-up that few people can pull off. While she coyly remarks that “women can do anything” as she disarms her prey with a seductive stranglehold, viewers immediately get the sense that this new brand of “Angel” knows exactly what she’s doing and we’d all better strap in for the ride.
Banks’ directorial follow-up to Pitch Perfect 2 harnesses the sexy secret-agent gravitas from the early 2000s blockbusters while layering on a noticeably 2019 feminist lens — an admirable attempt, even if it is a little too overt at times. Charlie’s Angels introduces us to two of the clandestine Townsend Agency’s best recruits, Sabina (Stewart) and Jane (British TV star Ella Balinska), an unlikely duo who find themselves tasked with protecting nerdy, sweet-natured programmer Elena (Naomi Scott, Aladdin) and Calisto, her company’s all-powerful alternative energy source that’s potentially a deadly weapon, should it end up in the wrong hands. A series of predictable but nevertheless amusing high jinks ensue surrounding their mission, culminating with a string of betrayals/surprise villain reveals and a good-trumps-evil anthem.
Interestingly, though, Banks manages to shift the gaze from the shiniest, jiggliest, most objectified aspects of the Angels and instead positions them as a means to an end. Each woman uses her body as a type of deadly ammunition and does so in different, compelling ways. Sabina transforms her physique from slinky ’70s disco queen to discreet horse jockey with comical ease, while Jane uses her undeniable physical prowess as a nonstop assault weapon — Angelina Jolie action-star-style. Elena, on the other hand, uses her awkward, cute-nerd-next-door charm to the best of her abilities to create diversions, though her wide-eyed innocence grows tiresome as the film continues. Meanwhile, Banks’ Bosely stands firmly in charge, both in front of the camera and behind the scenes. I have no doubt that if this script was left in anyone else’s hands, the film wouldn’t be nearly as magnetic and comedically successful as it is. Banks’ leadership lends a particular savviness to the screenplay and ensemble that would be undoubtedly missing from a generic studio reboot.
In this newest iteration, we learn that Bosley isn’t so much a name of a single person as it is a prestigious spy-supervisor title. We meet an expansive, cameo-filled team of international Bosleys as Patrick Stewart’s deliciously wicked top-ranking Bosley is thrown a surprise retirement party by Banks (also called Bosley). That all might sound confusing, but it actually seamlessly integrates the Angels series history into its current iteration while driving the narrative that Townsend’s famous covert spy network has continued to expand since its 1970s conception.
The film is quick to establish that these aren’t your early aughts, male-gaze-pandering Angels. These are emboldened, empowered espionage professionals — women at work, if you will — who are here to do a job and have fun doing it. They don’t apologize (except to each other), and, unlike previous cinematic Angels, they don’t make excuses for the cringeworthy male attention they attract. They aren’t susceptible to seedy charm or ill-fated attraction, simply because they see right through it. In this version, men don’t define them or even give them orders, and, to that end, the narrative feels extremely current and self-assured. These Angels don’t ask for permission or forgiveness — they take what they need when they need it and move right along.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t single out Kristen Stewart’s surprisingly charismatic performance here. She leans into her hyperaware persona in a way that we’ve rarely (if ever) seen from her. She’s funny, edgy and, yes, a little bit weird, but it actually works to her advantage. In fact, her goofy, nervous humor creates an unexpectedly zany throughline in the film and, in my opinion, serves as its strongest asset. Without her comedic timing, Charlie’s Angels could have verged too far into serious spy movie territory, but Stewart has a special way of anchoring the film without weighing it down.
Her Sabina is an earnest, genderqueer jock — a not fully femme but certainly not butch 20something heiress-turned-spy. Her gender expressions tap into the current consciousness in a way that feels authentic and easily digestible. Her sexuality isn’t novel or revelatory but simply part of who she is — a portrayal that I suspect many in the queer community will appreciate. She begins as a high femme performative ditz-on-display and quickly slips into an impressively athletic (typically masculine) role with ease and believability. You get the sense that Sabina slides along the sexuality and gender spectrums without giving it a second thought. This easy, breezy dance actually makes Stewart a joy to watch on screen — as opposed to her moody teen twitching as Bella Swan in the Twilight saga or her morose indie flick portrayals in Personal Shopper and Certain Women — and Charlie’s Angels is eons lighter and brighter because of her.
It’s also worth noting that this newest Angels soundtrack is equally as fun and possibly more provocative than past editions — no disrespect to Destiny’s Child, the original trio of “Independent Women.” With an irresistible girl-power anthem from three of 2019’s reigning pop music queens, Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus and Lana Del Rey’s “Don’t Call Me Angel” leads the deeply pandering but nevertheless unstoppable charge into this new uninhibited Angels domain. Coupled with bops from megastars like Nicki Minaj, Normani and even Chaka Khan, the spirited soundtrack drives the energy of the film (even where the plot falters) and encourages you to have a raucous good time. The film’s use of a remixed version of Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls” adds a particularly infectious ethos and channels the “anything goes” feeling that we’ve come to identify with the Charlie’s Angels universe.
Still, it must be noted that there’s a significant pacing issue toward the back half of the film that was noticeable enough for me to consider taking a bathroom break (my hallmark for any good/bad film). Thankfully, the humor remained just intriguing enough to warrant a stay in my seat. The plotline comes off as confusing and convoluted at times — an inescapable pitfall of past Angels iterations as well — but Banks’ believably badass on-screen command and Stewart’s comic swings create enough enjoyment to continue watching.
As for the action scenes, they’re so choppily edited that my friend and I actually looked at one another after each unbelievable feat and comically rolled our eyes. But that’s the kind of thing I’ve come to expect from this genre — ridiculous stunts, haphazard plotlines, a bumpin’ soundtrack and a hell of a lot of fun. It’s a good-time action flick made for those of us who just want to let our hair down during a girls’ night out, and, honestly, there’s nothing wrong with that.
The energy of the film feels sunnier, freer and more naturally feminist than the past iterations, a tonal shift that I suspect will resonate strongest with younger female audiences. The film is fun, the Angels have decent enough chemistry (no one could ever recapture that Liu/Diaz/Barrymore magic) and the soundtrack slaps — isn’t that all anyone can really ask for from a Charlie’s Angels experience?