CHARLIE’S ANGELS. Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, Ella Balinska, Elizabeth Banks, Djimon Hounsou, Sam Claflin, Noah Centineo, Patrick Stewart. Directed by Elizabeth Banks. 118 minutes. Rated M (Action violence).
Rebooting the ‘Charlie’s Angel’ franchise with a strong message of female empowerment and an up-and-coming female filmmaker at the helm sounds like a sure thing. Despite the most recent trio of Angels leaving a generally positive imprint on our cultural memory (could any three 2000s stars match the combined charm of Lucy Liu, Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore?), it was a property that was by no means untouchable, and one with a fertile premise that could easily be updated for the post-#MeToo era. However, this movie lands with a resounding meh, neither exciting nor fun enough to be recommended as pure entertainment, and ultimately failing in its half-hearted bid to confront gender bias through a pop culture framework.
Sabina (Kristen Stewart, very spunky) and Jane (Ella Balinska) are Angels, highly skilled lady-spies working for the Townsend Agency, a private security organisation run by the enigmatic Charlie. In the years since Bill Murray and Bernie Mac played John Bosley and his adopted brother Jimmy respectively, the Townsend Agency expanded globally and adopted the name Bosley as a rank, held by operatives who handle teams of Angels. While training under her Bosley (Djimon Hounsou) in Paris, Jane is assigned to a whistle-blower case in Germany. Despite some tension between her and Jane after a previous assignment in Rio de Janeiro, Sabina joins the team to meet with Elena (Naomi Scott), a scientist working on a revolutionary energy product.
After her boss (Nat Faxon) ignored her concerns that her ground-breaking invention, dubbed Calypso, was vulnerable to hackers trying to weaponise it, Elena approached the Angels for help. After a dogged assassin (Jonathan Tucker, channelling Robert Patrick’s T-1000) interrupts their initial meeting and fatally wounds Jane’s Bosley in the process, the Angels are assigned a new Bosley (Elizabeth Banks) and join forces with Elena to recover all the Calypso units before they fall into the wrong hands.
What follows is a great sequence in the office of Elena’s employers, wherein the Angels and Elena utilise matching bowl cut wigs to sell a wholesale illusion of mistaken identity, the M.C. Escher-inspired mise-en-scene and disorienting editing playfully conveying the confusion that the Angels are creating. While putting the audience into the thoroughly baffled mindsets of the security forces works well here, DP Bill Pope transfers this visual style into some of the other action scenes too, shooting some fight scenes from curious angles that, while arresting, sacrifice clarity. In these sequences, it’s difficult to be sure what’s happening, and even more difficult to be wowed by it.
That said, I didn’t expect Elizabeth Banks, whose previous directorial effort was ‘Pitch Perfect 2’, to necessarily be the next name in action filmmaking. Rather, I was holding out hope that the gifted comedienne would have produced a witty screenplay. However, she disappointingly struggles to land most of the earnest but lame jokes too. A few hit their mark, often thanks to the efforts of a charming cast (which also includes Patrick Stewart playing the founding Bosley, Noah Centineo as Jane’s romantic interest, and Luis Gerardo Méndez as another Townsend Agency employee), but the laughs are thin on the ground.
The story, credited to Evan Spiliotopoulos and playwright David Auburn, is passable, thankfully shaking up proceedings with a couple of unexpected rug pulls just when you think you’ve got the identity of the antagonists figured out. The structure is a little off, teasing out some plot information at points that feel mistimed, detracting from the tension rather than paying anything off. That said, the franchise’s core idea of female spies taking on villains that underestimate the women around them remains a potent one, particularly in today’s environment. However, this element, easily the most potent weapon at the film’s disposal, is mishandled. Until its winning, girl-power-overload final montage, which takes the lead trio through an unearned but effective sort of victory lap and simply basks in the glow of their friendship (stemming from what appears to be genuine fondness between the actresses), the movie struggles to unify its message of female empowerment.
The screenplay often clutches at low-hanging fruit to clumsily emphasise its message about how women are not taken seriously in the workplace (be it toiling away in espionage or STEM); “Don’t forget to smile, ja” one male German colleague exhorts Elena, a brand of overt chauvinism that feels like it written by a man (or someone else that has never experienced it first-hand). With the opening line, Sabina clearly articulates the movie’s thesis: “I think women can do anything.” However, when the reply comes from embezzler and all-round slimeball, Australian Johnny (Chris Pang), it’s too easy, too contrarian: “Just because they can, doesn’t mean they should.” I’m loath to place additional scrutiny on a script because of the gender of its author, however with Banks writing it, this film feels like it could have shown how insidiously and covertly sexism manifests in the world. By dialling all the misogyny in the film up to 11, its message is weakened by the exaggeration; it’s a lot easier to dismiss what we see here as fantasy, which in turn drags the positive message of female empowerment into the same realm.
An action-comedy that’s light on both action and comedy, ‘Charlie’s Angels’ is one of those films that you desperately wish was much better than it is, particularly given its opportunity to showcase the female talent involved. Less “Good morning, Charlie”, more “Mediocre movie, Charlie”.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out November 14.