Review: “Charlie’s Angels” (2019)

3 out of 5 stars.

It’s always great to see more movies written, directed by, and starring women, particularly in genres that are generally male-dominated.  But “Charlie’s Angels” is cringey from the opening scene, where it becomes apparent that the movie’s take on feminism is more pandering than empowering.

This new “Charlie’s Angels” is both a reboot and a continuation of the franchise that began as a TV series in the late 1970s and later as a pair of films beginning in the year 2000.  Elizabeth Banks writes and directs the movie, which centers around the Townsend Agency, an elite group of female spies known as “angels.”  A programmer named Elena Houghlin (Naomi Scott) comes to the agency for help when she finds out that her boss is covering up a deadly flaw in a device she helped develop called Calisto in order to rush it to market.  On the case is hardcore ex-MI6 agent Jane (Ella Balinska) and the more laid back Sabina (Kristen Stewart), who find that the job is a lot more complicated than they initially thought.  They are joined by one of Charlie’s assistants, all known as Bosley, but this one played by Banks, and together they work to track down Elena’s superiors before Calisto ends up in the wrong hands.

The Angels: Jane (Ella Balinska), Sabina (Kristen Stewart), and Elena (Naomi Scott)

The plot is not particularly inspired, and has a lot of holes.  While the concept of Calisto and how it works is kind of interesting, the device ends up serving as little more than a maguffin.  The action is pretty fun and entertaining and includes everything from heists to car chases to shootouts—all the spy movie essentials, including the requisite closet full of cool gadgets.  But it’s elevated by the cast’s performances and their different personalities.  There’s something attractive about Stewart’s cool aloofness as Sabina, and while Jane is the typical tough action hero on the surface, Balinska is able to mine a bit more from her.  As the outsider drawn into this complicated and dangerous world of spies, Elena is out of her element, and her eager incompetence is often played for laughs, with Scott handling the comedy nicely.  Patrick Stewart also joins the cast as the first Bosley (the same character played by Bill Murray in the first two movies), and lends an air of elegance to an otherwise campy movie.  The rest of the cast doesn’t get to do a lot to make much of an impact, like Jonathan Tucker’s assassin Hodak, Sam Clafin’s Alexander Brock (the obnoxious and superficial CEO of the company Elena works for), Noah Centineo as Elena’s lab assistant, and Djimon Hounsou as yet another Bosley.

Noah Centineo in a brief appearance opposite Ella Balinska

As it stands, “Charlie’s Angels” is a diverting two hours.  It’s certainly heavier on comedy and action than the series was when it began, but there are a lot of Easter eggs and fun cameos to look out for. But it would be a more promising start to a new era for the franchise had the film more subtly handled its feminist angle.  When a criminal describes to one of the angels how women should be subservient to men, or when a security guard letting Elena into her office building tells her to “remember to smile,” it feels less like a natural depiction of the struggles women face every day and more like Banks was trying to cram every slight she could think of into the screenplay.  She doesn’t need to try that hard; just the nature of the conflict between the male and female characters in this movie, and seeing the women continuously gain the upper hand, is satisfying and empowering enough.  It makes this movie made in 2019 feel about as modern as the show when it debuted in the 1970s.  We’re getting to the point where female characters are starting to dominate more big franchises and action movies.  But we still haven’t gotten to where they are given the chance to carry a film without the Me Too baggage weighing it down.

Runtime: 118 minutes. Rated PG-13.

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