Charlie’s Angels stubbornly refuses to leave the public consciousness despite its journey from a deeply silly and joyously schlocky television show to a massively budgeted superstar vehicle which was deeply silly and joyously schlocky. It’s big dumb fun with explosions and bikinis. But Elizabeth Banks’ take on the idea is novel merely because somehow it’s never been done before.
Charlie’s Angels have always been constructed primarily through the male gaze. Which is not to say both the show and the two later movies weren’t feminist in their own ways but they were made by men. Banks wrote and directed the latest entry and while not as cartoonishly zany as Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle it is just as goofy, sexy, and fun as it ever was.
The Townsend Agency once a small-time local private investigative agency founded by a faceless millionaire benefactor is now a worldwide organization. Bosley is now a rank as opposed to a single person with Angels being the boots on the ground operatives. Thankfully Banks doesn’t spend much time world-building and instead throws us straight into the action.
Naomi Scott’s, Elena, is the hapless scientist who feels her concerns for a brand new source of clean energy which could be weaponized if in the wrong hands are being ignored. She’s a whistleblower, a specialty of the Townsend Agency, so she contacts them and that’s when Elena’s life goes sideways. Together with Jane (Ella Balinska) and Sabina (Kristen Stewart), the two Angels assigned to protect her and get the device back, the trio race to track down the devices on the black market.
If you’ve ever seen a movie before you’ll know the rest by heart. The real attraction though is the chemistry between Stewart, Scott, and Balinska. The three make for a great distraction for a film which is upfront about being just a goofy excercise. Stewart, in particular, is having a ball. Her off-kilter Park Avenue Princess douche bag Sabine, all but steals the show, as we wonder if possibly Sabine could get a spin-off. But if they did do a spin-off they would need the other two because as spotlight-stealing as Stewart is, Scott and Balisnka shine in their own right.
Banks allow the ladies to just have fun in a way we don’t normally see ladies have fun on camera. Elena busting out with Run DMC’s “It’s Tricky” as she does a sound test only to have her friend and assistant, join in with her feels as if Banks just had the cameras rolling and decided to keep it.
Moments such as these give Charlie’s Angels a sort of rakish charm. It’s not as polished as the two earlier McG movies. Nor is it as rambunctious as it’s predecessors either. There is no Lucy Liu in a spandex suit spanking Drew Barrymore in a three-piece suit with a riding crop, for instance. But you do have Kristin Stewart in a short shorts spinning on her heels to turn around as she passes a smoke show in the gym. While not explicitly gay, Stewart makes sure her every movement and line reading screams some sort of queerness. Like Brian Bryan Fuller’s Pushing Daisies the queerness is baked so deeply into the material that no matter how corporate or sanitized the movie may be, you can’t ignore it.
Scott is lovable as the nerdy scientist in awe of Jane and Sabine, two world-weary badasses who seem so confident and at ease with the chaos and action around them. She sits with her jaw hanging open as Jane hangs out of a speeding car and open fires at the bad guys. She can’t help but be a little flustered by the swaggering goofball Sabine, and the three quickly begin an easy friendship with its own brisk repartee.
Balinska is a true find as stoic, gun-obsessed, tactician. This is a tall ladies summer with Mackenzie Davis and now Balinska as they are for once not shrunken down to appear smaller. Banks allows Blaisnka to tower over her castmates and her male counterparts. Her screen presence is confident and at times somewhat electrifying as she and Stewart trade quips back and forth.
Yes, Stewart steals the spotlight, but she’s never selfish with it. Plus Balinska and Scott steal the spotlight back time and time again. The three women never allow the film to devolve into merely a one-woman show instead allowing each actress to shine in their own unique way.
Charlie’s Angels is largely plot by numbers. But Banks manages to pull a neat twist towards the middle of the movie. A twist that I saw coming but then didn’t only to find myself delighted when Banks called out the audience for its own sexist conclusions. Banks is not a visual director but she knows how to get her actresses at ease.
She has directed two out of the three Pitch Perfect movies and though they look a mess they bristle with an easygoing cheekiness and energy. With Charlie’s Angels, she seems to be growing more comfortable with the camera. Though it may be because she’s working with Bill Pope who has shot movies such as The Matrix, Clueless, and Baby Driver.
The action scenes feel less like a music video and more like actual action scenes with structure and purpose. Pope and Banks use the camera as a conduit to keep the energy pulsing throughout the action scenes and keeping it still during the character moments. One shot, in particular, has the camera falling down the well of a stairway lends a sort of frenetic rhythm intact between action bits. Banks is getting gutsier with her visual style, thinking of it as a style and less as just a way to record people talking.
Listen, I know it’s just a silly action movie and charges of empty corporate shilling masquerading as feminism will likely be lobbied but honestly, I don’t care. I had fun damn it. Besides men have been making vain, shallow, corporate shilling, action movies for decades. Now we call them superhero movies but a rose by any other name and all that.
Plus we get to see Stewart’s comedic side. Like Michelle Williams in The Greatest Showman, half the fun is just seeing a great actress being able to have fun and be a giggling goofball. If nothing else it further proves that Stewart is one of the finest talents of her generation.
If anything we should thank Banks for giving us a new side of Stewart, making us realize the gift of Scott, and introducing us to Balinska. Delightful and game for anything the trio’s charisma and self-confidence help buoy a sometimes too padded out runtime. Charlie’s Angels isn’t a great movie but it is a blast; so I don’t really care.