Ready to feel old? The big-screen adaptation of Charlie’s Angels was released almost 20 years ago. Yes, it’s been nearly two decades since Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, and Lucy Liu lit up the screen with McG’s (remember him?) glitzy relaunch that was all sorts of campy fun. Alright, it wasn’t exactly a masterful film. And it certainly hasn’t aged well. But, dammit, that movie was a bloody good early-millennium time at the cinema.
After many were left disappointed with the bombastic 2003 sequel (full disclosure – I kinda love it) and the woeful 2011 television series (remember that?!) was cancelled after only four episodes, it’s time for the reboot no one really asked for. But it’s 2019 where everything old is new again, so it’s time to give this long-dead franchise another crack.
By virtue of comparison to this year’s other misguided reboots, Charlie’s Angels manages to rise above disastrously low expectations but that’s hardly saying much. A disjointed but earnestly feminist blockbuster, this revival kickstarts our run into the holiday season with more of a mild whimper than a riotous roar.
Existing in the same cinematic universe as its two predecessors (yes, there are a few cheeky references), the reboot finds the infamous Townsend Agency has now gone global, overseen by a whole series of international “Bosleys” including the original Bosley (Patrick Stewart), a former Angel (Elizabeth Banks), and morning TV host Michael Strahan for some inexplicable reason.
A prologue set in Rio introduces us to two of our titular Angels in Sabina (a terrific Kristen Stewart), a smart-alec firecracker who rarely takes anything seriously, and Jane (Ella Balinska), a former MI-6 agent who absolutely takes everything seriously. After easily taking down a bad guy known as Australian Jonny (Chris Pang), the pair are teamed up again one year later in Hamberg, much to Jane’s chagrin.
After the original Bosley retires, their new mission is overseen by Banks’ incarnation of Bosley with the assignment seeming relatively simple. Gifted young scientist Elena (Naomi Scott) had helped develop a renewable green energy source known as Calisto with one crucial design flaw; if it fell into the wrong hands, it could be weaponised to cause fatal seizures. Whoops.
When her desperate pleas to delay the product’s launch are ignored by her money-hungry boss Peter (Nat Faxon), Elena has no choice but to become a whistleblower with plans to present her damning data to the authorities. Fearing for her safety, Elena has turned to the Townsend Agency for protection. Naturally, it all goes pear-shaped when the girls are targeted by ruthless assassin Hodak (Jonathan Tucker) and Calisto does indeed fall into the wrong hands.
From here, we’re off on a dizzying trip around Europe, as the girls chase Calisto in Istanbul, London, and Berlin before a big finale showdown in Chamonix, France. If this sounds achingly similar to this year’s disastrous Men in Black: International, you’re not wrong. There’s a concerted effort to make this reboot a decidedly international affair, which certainly offers more exotic locations for the film’s elaborate set-pieces.
Working with about half the budget of the original films, Charlie’s Angels still manages to pack all the car chases, explosions, and fight sequences this franchise is known for, all shot in a series of glitzy locales around the globe. For a movie that “only” cost $50 million, this reboot never once looks like a downgrade. But writer/director/producer Banks offers something far more grounded in reality, with the stylised The Matrix-esque fight choreography that was all the rage in 2000 dispatched in favour of more authentic action.
For those of us who loved the giddily campy fun of the two predecessors, there may be some disappointment here. The film definitely does not take itself too seriously, but never quite crosses over into the outrageous absurdist riot McG offered up. Perhaps that’s for the best, as reboots that merely lazily rehash what’s come before are all the rage now. For better or worse, Banks is steadfastly determined to deliver something entirely fresh.
It’s undoubtedly clear Banks is wisely attempting to reclaim Charlie’s Angels for females around the globe, doing away with the tacky male gaze found in the original two films. It doesn’t always work. The film begins with a genuinely bizarre montage of random women around the globe, which truly looks like stock footage available for advertising purposes. There’s an earnest effort to put the feminist gaze on this property, but, in a post-Wonder Woman/Captain Marvel cinematic world, there’s nothing particularly groundbreaking here. Still, these female-led action properties are nevertheless in the embarrassing minority, so the film is absolutely still something to celebrate.
When Charlie’s Angels finally gives itself over to fun in its deliciously entertaining final act, the film truly comes alive. However, by this late stage, you may have genuinely stopped caring. After arriving at a glitzy party, filled with all manner of beautiful people, for no apparent reason, Sabina and Jane join a perfectly choreographed dance routine, set to Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls,” which, frankly, is the film’s greatest moment. How exactly do they know the dance moves? Did they pre-plan the routine with the party attendees? Who knows and who cares. It’s so damn ridiculous, it just works. Sadly, the film is aching for more of these absurd little moments to liven things up.
The biggest issue here is the screenplay, which is a calamity of woeful dialogue and endless exposition. The “bad guy has a doomsday device” plot has been done to death and is far too complicated than it needs to be. Thankfully, there are the occasional moments of gold within Banks’ script, particularly a downright hilarious discussion of Birdman of Alcatraz, Birdman, and Batman that offers an uproarious glimpse into the generational divide between film fans.
While Scott and Balinska do their best with rather one-dimensional characters, it’s Stewart who entirely saves Charlie’s Angels with a performance that almost feels like it’s from another film entirely. Proving she has the comedic chops as yet untapped by Hollywood, Stewart is a genuine delight with a performance full of deadpan humour and intoxicating confidence. She’s endlessly cool and the kind of party girl you wish was your best friend.
Sabina is brash as all hell, and, yes, she’s queer, but the film thankfully refuses to make a huge “woke” deal of this fact, offering Stewart the chance to truly let loose and have an absolute ball with a character that’s the total anthesis of that Twilight heroine who made her famous. For those who haven’t been paying attention, Stewart has been wildly impressive in a series of indie films over the last few years. This may finally be the mainstream film to break Stewart free from the Bella Swan shackles.
Wearing her fourth hat in this film (the woman can do it all), Banks makes a terrific Bosley, almost becoming the film’s fourth co-lead. There’s an endearing chemistry between the trio of gutsy females that’s only elevated once their new overseer joins the fray. The other Stewart (as in Sir Patrick) provides plenty of dry one-liners in a performance that takes a swift U-turn into something completely expected but entirely wonderful. And it’s great to see Sam Claflin once again play against type as a snivelling Mark Zuckerberg-type tech magnate whose charm is undone by his pathetic ambition.
At the end of the day, Charlie’s Angels is earnestly determined to prove women are just as strong and important as men, maybe even more so. When a film opens with the line, “Women can do anything,” there’s little subtlety about what it’s hoping to say. This reboot offers just enough to prove its necessity in a year of entirely pointless revivals. There’s a terrific post-credits montage which beckons greater things are yet to come. Whether they’ll be given the chance to flourish to fruition is another matter entirely.
While it takes far too long to truly hit its stride, Charlie’s Angels finds its feet just in time to have you exiting the cinema with a mild smile on your face. Banks has successfully avoided crafting something that idly serves up the exact same ingredients as its predecessors, and that has to be admired. It may not be a reboot many were clamouring for, but, hey, at least it tries its damnedest to change your mind.
THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Charlie’s Angels is in cinemas now.