It’s easy to get exhausted with the current cinematic moment, where intellectual property gets recycled to the point of exhaustion, and new ideas seem to be in short supply. (Or at least, they aren’t getting turned into movies.) But the phenomenon has its upside, too. As each deathless bit of IP makes return after return — is it time for another Battlestar Galactica already? — we get a chance to see what succeeding eras want from the same unchanging core concepts.
Sometimes those concepts are pretty silly, like, say, the Charlie’s Angels agency staffed by elite female private investigators, who have flattering outfits for every possible occasion, and work for a never-seen billionaire named Charlie. (With some help from an intermediary controller named Bosley.) But sometimes new incarnations of legacy media, like Elizabeth Banks’ fresh cinematic take on Charlie’s Angels, find intriguing ways to improve on those elements.
The original TV incarnation of Charlie’s Angels briefly became a phenomenon in the 1970s. For a long time, it was a symbol of TV’s so-called “jiggle era,” thanks to the sexy outfits and suggestive situations its three private-eye heroines ended up in each week. It first returned as a pair of flashy, silly turn-of-the-millennium movies, 2000’s Charlie’s Angels and its 2003 sequel Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle. McG directed both, but producer/star Drew Barrymore brought her sensibility to the films, turning the heroines into more forceful, independent adventurers while wrapping the show’s original eye-candy roots in a protective coating of irony. Barrymore’s company Flower Films then revived Charlie’s Angels as a short-lived TV series in 2011. And now, in 2019, Flower has handing the reins to Elizabeth Banks, who wrote and directed this new version, while also co-starring as Bosley. (Well, one of its Bosleys.)
Given the many hats Banks wears in the 2019 Charlie’s Angels, it’s no shock that the film’s first line is “I think women can do anything.” The opening moment is a mission statement. Delivered by the tough-talking Sabina Wilson (Kristen Stewart) to a sexist bad guy who’s seriously underestimating her ability to kick his ass, it sets the tone for a film that’s happy to provide the expected scenes of action and attractive women, but only on its own terms, with women supporting each other providing not-so-subtle empowerment messages. That may sound programmatic, but Banks cleverly weaves those messages into a mostly satisfying action movie where the best moments turn the film’s small scale into a virtue.
The plot revolves around an energy company’s dangerous new product, a tremendously powerful Echo Dot-sized device named Callisto that has the unplanned-for capability to be converted into a lethal weapon. But the film revolves around Stewart, who gets center stage for most of the movie as the most dynamic of the Angels. She’s a reckless, garrulous firecracker who dons long wigs when she needs to get men’s attention, but seems far more at home hanging out with her fellow agents.
These include the remote ex-MI6 agent Jane (Ella Balinska) and eventually Elena (Aladdin’s Naomi Scott), an engineer whose attempts to blow the whistle on Callisto’s problems earns her the attention of a tattooed hitman (Jonathan Tucker) and assorted other bad guys. Their adventures take them from Hamburg to Istanbul while making frequent exposition-friendly pit stops at Angels safe houses, including one staffed by The Saint (Luis Gerardo Méndez), a font of support whose skills include straightening out bad backs (after asking for consent) and preparing elaborate cheese plates.
Banks brings a distinctive vision of a what a female-centered espionage movie ought to look like, one in which the undercover operatives deliver meaningful hugs when a mission goes awry, make a point of supplying a health-clinic contact with a van full of birth control and feminine hygiene products, and generally favor tea and kombucha over vodka martinis. Mostly, those elements feel refreshing, and while the film gets bogged down by some saggy stretches, it delivers the action goods via hand-to-hand fight scenes and a car chase that doesn’t contain any conspicuous CGI. It’s no Fast and Furious movie, crammed with action and endless elaborate set pieces. On the other hand, it doesn’t feature any of the excesses that have become central to those films and their followers.
The charming cast helps smooth over the rough elements, like an opening scene where Sabina and Jane first encounter each other, followed by a later awkward introduction scene. Banks has fun as their handler — Bosley is a rank in the organization, not a name — and Balinska and Scott have their moments. But it’s really Stewart’s movie. She gets laughs from lines that others probably couldn’t, and throws herself into the film as if it all depended on her efforts to keep the energy lively. And sometimes it does. But the film emerges as a perfectly agreeable action movie, one that’s both true to the concept of Charlie’s Angels, and probably unrecognizable to anyone time-traveling from the 1970s. That’s okay, though. Some concepts have to evolve to survive.
Charlie’s Angels is in theaters now.