Charlie's Angels (2019)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 12/06/19 02:46:49

"Ditch the 'Angels' branding and just having the ladies kick ass."
3 stars (Average)

I try not to think of the calculations that go on in studio executives' heads too much, because it's frightening and tends to put one at a distance from the actual merits of the films themselves, but it gets kind of interest in a movie like this. I suspect that most studios would like to have an action/adventure series along the general lines of this movie, and if you own the name "Charlie's Angels", why not make it part of that franchise? Maybe nobody is really looking for a new "Charlie's Angels" - fans of the first iteration are around retirement age, the second was sold on its cast, and the third bombed - but does the association help or hurt a relatively unremarkable action/adventure film at the box office?

The "Angels" work for The Townsend Agency, which was once a relatively small Los Angeles concern but has in recent years expanded to a worldwide troubleshooting network of female operatives, thanks to retiring co-founder John Bosley (Patrick Stewart), whose name has become synonymous with the agents' handlers. Their latest case comes from Elena Houghlin (Naomi Scott), an engineer in Hamburg alarmed that a clean-energy system which can be weaponized to create lethal electromagnetic pulses is being rushed into production. Sabina Wilson (Kristen Stewart) and Jane Kano (Ella Balinska) are assigned to the case, which soon becomes more complicated than just aiding and protecting a whistleblower, even with a new Bosley (Elizabeth Banks) who is the first former Angel in the job.

Along the way, there are supervisors who try to take credit for their employees' work, especially that of the women like Helena, turncoats, a tattooed assassin who is a notch more intense than the other thugs, a fabulous party to infiltrate, and the seemingly inevitable trip to Istanbul, which must have a fabulous tax-incentive-for-spy-movies program. It's fun stuff, especially since the Angels are more likely to be outfitted their whimsical James Bond tech than 007 is these days, but the film can't help but feel like a remix of familiar elements that never gets beyond the surface cool and is sometimes a bit too self-referential for its own good.

And it feels like this movie really needs to show the audience something new; it's the fourth iteration of this franchise, plugging new actresses into the slots of a three-plus-one team but kind of expecting the same basic idea that was compelling enough as a TV show 40 years ago when TV was much less ambitious to be worth it now. Writer/director Elizabeth Banks grounds it more directly in how its characters have been passed over and treated as less, but can't help but treat the story as old hat, something to hang her idea of the updated concept on but also not so consequential as it should be. There's something uniquely horrifying and worth playing with where its MacGuffin is concerned - a cute Alexa-sized device for every home that can not just spy on its owners but murder them - that is never given as much weight as putting a new coat of paint on the pieces of the premise Banks and her co-writers inherited (while still not actually doing much with how, for all the girl-power stuff, the management of the Townsend Agency is still overwhelmingly male after forty years!).

The cast is quite appealing, at least, with the central trio well-built for this movie - Naomi Scott's earnest Elena is a smart and enthusiastic fish out of water, and having her in the mix keeps Kristen Stewart's eccentric Sabina and Ella Balinska's professional Jane from just playing out odd-couple material. Banks plays big sister well enough, while Djimon Hounsou and Nat Faxon ably demonstrate different levels of support as manager-types. Patrick Stewart goes big but often seems to fit in the film about as well as he does in the photoshopped photos of him with the previous teams of Angels - a reluctant male retiree is probably going to have a specific purpose in a movie foregrounding young women, and this one screws around quite a bit before getting there.

In terms of the Angels actually doing stuff, the movie is okay although Balinska seems to throw herself into the physically-intense material more than the rest. Banks does have an eye for what makes a nifty action scene but not necessarily the sort of cast and crew that can really pull it off; there's a lot of moments in this movie where the audience will see a nifty establishing shot followed by a bunch of too-quick, too-close cuts that show that a fight is happening but only show you the skill in flashes. It's at least something - a lot of action movies on this scale don't even have that - but it's not what it could or should be.

Odds are this revival of "Charlie's Angels" won't last, and maybe it will seem too much a product of a specific time in ten years to be revived again. And if studios are worried about making an action movie with three female leads, they can always just claim they're remaking "The Heroic Trio" or something.

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