Does the fact that this unwanted update of the Charlie’s Angels franchise is less awful than expected make it worth seeing? In the devalued world of the current multiplex, maybe so. It’s hard not to appreciate the feminist, Time’s Up spark that director-producer-writer-actor Elizabeth Banks brings to material that has long passed its sell-by date. At its core, this millennial Charlie’s Angels is still shuffling the same spy-babes clichés that spawned a 1970s TV hit (best remembered for Farrah Fawcett’s waterfall of blond curls), a hit big-screen version in 2000 (starring Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, and Lucy Liu) that wore out its welcome with a lousy 2003 sequel — and a 2011 TV reboot so lame it barely lasted eight episodes.
Charlie’s Angels 2019, a globe-trotting puff of escapism, should be the nail in the coffin. That it isn’t exactly is due to Banks and her crew of woke Angels. Kristen Stewart, happily flexing her fun muscles after heavy lifting on the indie circuit, plays Sabina, a New York heiress who trades in indolence for kicking ass. “Women can do everything,” says Sabina in the rousing opening line from a film that celebrates girl power from first moment to last. Sabina is also gender fluid which creates sexual tension with fellow Angel and frenemy Jane (a vibrant Ella Balinska), a former MI-6 agent who thinks Sabina is a loose cannon. They’re both held in check by Bosley, played with just the right notes of mischief and mystery by Banks, an underrated actress (see Love & Mercy and The Hunger Games) who improves every movie she’s in. In the new Angels universe, Bosley is more a title (like Lieutenant) than a character. There are now dozens of Bosleys spread across the world, all reporting to the unseen Charlie, still only a voice on a squawk box. But with the longest-running top Bosley (Patrick Stewart, hamming to the hilt) being forced into retirement, Banks’ surrogate has her eyes on the prize.
Good on Banks for obliterating the infamous “male gaze” in favor of something less sexist and jiggle obsessed. And for a plot, developed by Banks from a story by Evan Spiliotopoulos and David Auburn (the Pulitzer-prize winning playwright of Proof), Banks takes on the hot-button issue of climate change. Don’t worry, the Angels haven’t gone PBS. They just need to save Calisto, an alternative source of sustainable energy, from being stolen and weaponized by the bad guys, all of them formula villains or interchangeable male bimbos. Female revenge is sweet.
The action hinges on Elena (a spirited Naomi Scott, Aladdin’s Princess Jasmine), a wannabe Angel and expert hacker who knows how to save Calisto for the good side. Apologies for making this moolah-minded enterprise sound more intriguing than it is. Banks, in only her second directing stint after 2015’s Pitch Perfect 2, deserves credit for infusing live-wire energy and this-just-in topicality into a moribund genre. But she also lets the pacing falter: The jumpily edited stunts go slack and the risible dialogue die on the comedy vine. Luckily, Stewart, Balinska, and Scott are just the angels you need when a movie needs rescuing. They make the salvage operation that is Charlie’s Angels go down easy.