'Charlie's Angels': Film Review

A fresh feminist spin on a cherished franchise.
11/15/2019

Kristen Stewart leads the titular trio of smart and confident female spies fighting to bring down an international criminal plot in this reboot directed by Elizabeth Banks.

Audiences have been watching the trio of lady spies known as Charlie’s Angels kick ass and shut down criminal conspiracies for more than 40 years now. It all started as a television show on ABC in 1976. Over 20 years later, there were feature reboots in 2000 and 2003 starring Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu, both from director McG. Then in 2011, a television reboot appeared on ABC, but failed to match the success of the original, resulting in scathing reviews and eventual cancellation.

Now as the latest wave of Hollywood reboot fever rolls on, the story has been reimagined as another feature, this time written and helmed by multihyphenate Elizabeth Banks, an actor, producer and now director of an estimated $50 million film. Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott and Ella Balinska star in the title roles.

The prior versions of Charlie’s Angels bear almost no resemblance to its latest iteration. While the basic premise is still the same — three women spies work for an unknown millionaire boss named Charlie through his proxy (well, now it’s actually proxies, all still named Bosley) — this time around Banks basically keeps the facade while gutting the interior.

The result is a grand remodel that honors its precursors while elevating itself beyond them. Banks brings Charlie’s Angels into the modern age with flair, all while unapologetically raising a feminist flag, championing female friendships and subtly making a point about the urgency of the ongoing climate crisis.

The Angels’ case centers on super-smart systems engineer Elena (Scott), who has programmed a device called Calisto, a form of sustainable green energy that replaces the need for the traditional electrical grid. But in the wrong hands Calisto can also be weaponized as an instrument of mass killing, and the Angels’ Sabina (Stewart) and Jane (Balinska), along with Banks as the Bosley on their case, unearth said clandestine plot.

By the way, Bosley has become the Bosleys, a group of men (like the stately Patrick Stewart) and women lieutenants who report to Charlie and assist the global force of Angel spies as they carry out their missions. While Stewart, Scott and Balinska ably hold their own onscreen, it’s not just about them anymore; instead, Banks depicts a worldwide espionage web composed in large part of highly trained and collaborative women.

But make no mistake: These Angels still kick ass. Banks peppers in the action-movie sequences that fans of this genre have come to expect, and they are well plotted and paced. (The final comeuppance stands out as expertly choreographed and executed with ballet-like precision.)

Moreover, these lady spies aren’t leading with cleavage or dumbing themselves down to shore up the egos of their clueless boyfriends like the Angels of the past. Rather, they express their femininity and sexuality in ways that give their characters depth and agency rather than reducing them to objects. (The 2000 version of Charlie’s Angels, for example, has an entire scene of Diaz dancing wildly around her apartment in her underwear for no reason, her body offered up cheap for an objectifying male gaze.) The movie also wants us to know that Stewart’s character is queer, but it wisely reveals this without much fanfare or woke sketch comedy.

This is only Banks’ second feature helming effort — she directed Pitch Perfect 2, which had an estimated $30 million budget and brought in $287 million worldwide — but you’d never suspect it. Perhaps the biggest tell of her inventiveness here is that she manages to position Charlie’s Angels as an international franchise that now easily allows for multiple sequels and maybe even a couple prequels with Stewart’s Sabina or the Charlie that Banks cleverly unmasks as first in line.

The film was shot mostly in Germany and Turkey and features characters that will organically appeal to an international audience. One example is a Turkish-Muslim woman, Fatimah (Marie-Lou Sellem), whom the movie takes care to make sure we get to know: She runs an NGO for women in crisis and becomes an asset for the Angels.

And then there are the little girls who appear like Easter eggs in the background or in cutesy one-liner roles throughout the pic. There’s even an opening montage of images of optimistic, powerful girls from every corner of the globe. It feels out of place until you gradually begin to realize that Banks is making a meaningful effort to get young girls to see themselves in the film. When was the last time an action movie did that? Banks puts a spotlight on a wide swath of women and girls that mirrors what the world, not just the U.S., looks like. It’s a touch that effortlessly draws attention to the rarity of experiencing this kind of wide-ranging feminist gaze in big-budget action films, even recent ones with female leads like the Ghostbusters reboot and Wonder Woman.

The movie isn’t shy about making its main point: Men are not inherently more valuable than women — or, as Sabina puts it in her opening line, “Women can do anything.” That kind of on-the-nose dialogue will undoubtedly irritate some viewers, but over time the pic cleverly earns its stripes beat by beat. The result is a wildly entertaining action flick that also happens to expose the systemic ways that men are overvalued and women are undervalued in society, and daringly connects this pattern to nothing short of planetary annihilation.

Production companies: Columbia Pictures, Perfect World Pictures, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Brownstone Productions, 2.0 Entertainment
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, Ella Balinska, Elizabeth Banks, Djimon Hounsou, Sam Claflin, Noah Centineo, Patrick Stewart
Director-screenwriter: Elizabeth Banks
Story by: Evan Spiliotopoulos, David Auburn
Producers: Doug Belgrad, Elizabeth Cantillon, Max Handelman, Elizabeth Banks
Executive producers: Matthew Hirsch, Leonard Goldberg, Drew Barrymore, Nancy Juvonen
Director of photography: Bill Pope
Production designer: Aaron Haye
Costume designer: Kym Barrett
Music: Brian Tyler
Music supervision: Julianne Jordan, Julia Michels
Editors: Alan Baumgarten, Mary Jo Markey

Rated PG-13, 118 minutes