“When the show was number three, I figured it was our acting,” the late Farrah Fawcett once said of her breakout role on “Charlie’s Angels.” “When it got to be number one, I decided it could only be because none of us wears a bra.”
Indeed, “Charlie’s Angels,” as a franchise, has never been about acting or character or even plot. It is what TV critics of the day called “jiggle TV” or more crassly “tits and ass TV.” The show may have had female leads, but nobody would mistake “Charlie’s Angels” for a feminist show.
The original show’s somewhat sexist tone continued through two male-directed feature films in the early 2000’s, but leave it to director Elizabeth Banks, the first female director in the series’ history, to reclaim the show as a thoroughly feminist text and an ode to female empowerment.
That reclamation may be Banks’ biggest accomplishment, and really her only accomplishment, in “Charlie’s Angels.” Because, despite all the feminist messaging, she forgot the fun. She strands a solid cast in a generic story, predictable action beats and corny jokes. This “Charlie’s Angels” is of the moment, but also as clunky as a 1970’s television set.
The screenplay by Banks is a reimagining of the whole “Angels” mythos. While it takes place in the same world as the TV series and the previous movies, it also exists in a world where the Townsend Agency has gone global. There are dozens of angels all over the world, and also multiple iterations of Bosley, who in this version is less a person and more of an honorary title. Banks is a Bosley, and so are Djimon Hounsou and Patrick Stewart in largely thankless roles. Also, Michael Strahan is a Bosley for some reason.
The plot, if you really must know, has something to do with an energy conservation device that can also murder people. You’d think they would have worked that out in beta testing.
Two angels (Kristen Stewart and Ella Balinska) are on the trail of the device and the evildoers who want to exploit it. Along the way, they get tangled up with a computer programmer (Naomi Scott) who they train as the Townsend Agency’s newest recruit.
Their escapades take them from Rio to Hamburg, Berlin to Istanbul. There is, naturally, a maniacal Bond-style villain played by Stewart (Sir Patrick, not Kristen) with all of the scenery-chewing swagger the man can muster.
The elder Stewart has the few memorable moments in a film that too often seems to be going through the spy-movie motions. Every action beat and every quip is calculated and precise, but you’ve almost certainly seen them executed better.
Stewart, Balinska and Scott seem a lot more comfortable in the action beats than in the comedic ones, and Banks is at least smart enough to play to her stars’ strengths for the most part. But she also attempts a lot of quick-witted banter that falls flat.
This “Charlie’s Angels” (rated PG-13 for action/violence, language and some suggestive material) thankfully avoids the series’ past female objectification and instead pushes a strong female empowerment message. What makes these angels special isn’t how they look, but their compassion, their street smarts and their grace under pressure.
That’s all great as it goes, but Banks repeatedly proves that this angle is the only new thing she has to bring to “Charlie’s Angels.” The story would have felt strained and the dialogue would have felt corny if this was a television episode in the ‘70s, and it sticks out like a sore thumb in 2019.
Like “Ocean’s 8,” “The Hustle,” and “Ghostbusters: Answer the Call” before it, “Charlie’s Angels” resurrects a long dormant franchise and gives it strong female empowerment messages and not a whole lot else. While it’s not quite bad enough to make you long for the bad old days of “jiggle TV,” it’s also hard to shake the feeling that the old “Angels,” as offensive as it was, was at least a little more fun than this.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.