Heaven knows I don’t have anything against poofy escapism, but when it’s packaged with shallow rah-rah feminism, it doesn’t seem to do much for me. That’s probably why I was disappointed in the two previous Charlie’s Angels films, and I probably would have had the same experience if I’d been around for the 1970s TV show. For the record, I rate the current Charlie’s Angels as better than its predecessors from the early 2000s. Just not by very much.
This film exists on a continuum with those earlier iterations of the story, with Bosley (Patrick Stewart) having taken the Townsend Agency global and installed multiple other Bosleys in branches around the world. That proves fortuitous for the newest Angels recruit, who is also their newest client: Elena Houghlin (Naomi Scott) is an American programmer in Hamburg who has developed a cleaner, safer way to deliver electrical power, but her company takes the project away from her before she can fix a design flaw that would allow hackers to turn the system into a weapon. The Bosley she meets with (Djimon Hounsou) is killed, so a replacement Bosley (Elizabeth Banks) comes in and instructs her agents Sabina and Jane (Kristen Stewart and Ella Balinska) to neutralize the threat.
Banks pulls additional duties as director and writer, and this material doesn’t play to her strengths. She doesn’t have the instincts for filming fight sequences and shootouts, and while she does find a nice overhead angle for a bit in which Sabina takes down a security guard in a restroom stall, this is the exception. Elsewhere, she makes hash out of the opening sequence with multiple Angels defeating a bad guy’s bodyguards in a Rio de Janeiro hotel suite and the infiltration of Elena’s workplace with all the Angels wearing identical clothes and wigs. I’ve seen other women direct great action sequences (Kathryn Bigelow, Coralie Fargeat). Banks isn’t ready to join them.
That’s the biggest issue, but far from the only one. The male villains — patronizing Australian embezzler (Chris Pang), mansplaining American boss (Nat Faxon), handsy German security guard (David Schütter) — are uninteresting. The movie fails to make us invest in Jane through her attempts to redress a wrong she did in Istanbul. The Angels themselves barely know one another, so we’re mystified as to why Jane would tear up when it looks like Sabina might die. The closing credits sequence teases the Townsend Agency as a worldwide women’s leadership seminar where you get to kill bad guys, a terrific idea that should have occasioned more than just a parade of celebrity cameos, including one of the original Angels.
So, what does work? For starters, Kristen Stewart gives the series a wild card that it has never had before. When Bosley asks if she stole a vehicle, Sabina gives her a nod that manages to communicate, “What else did you expect?” Even in her comedies like Café Society and American Ultras, Stewart has never had a chance to let loose like this, and she looks comfortable doing it. For her part, Scott (who played Jasmine in the Aladdin remake) provides a nice contrast to the seasoned operatives around her, looking convincingly terrified and outmatched when she first tries and fails to fight off a bad guy. Sam Claflin displays an unsuspected comic talent as a weenie of a tech mogul who is more upset about the Angels ruining one of his parties than the fact that people are dying in front of him. The Angels’ safehouse in Paris comes with an in-house wellness guru (Luis Gerardo Méndez), and he’s a funny character, an island of New Age serenity amid the violence who’s keen to make the Angels a new restorative kombucha drink or a new explosive device hidden in a breath mint.
It’s the director who’s miscast. That’s a shame, too, since the cinema landscape could use a woman proving that she can pull off this precise blend of action and comedy. (Booksmart makes me think Olivia Wilde could do it.) For the moment, we’ll have to settle for what we can find here.
Starring Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, and Ella Balinska. Written and directed by Elizabeth Banks. Rated PG-13.