Movies like Charlie’s Angels mean well, and they really want audiences to know exactly how well they mean: Just as Dark Phoenix makes the overdetermined case that women, too, can be superheroes, Charlie’s Angels makes a strong argument for gentlewoman spies in its opening scene. Sabina (Kristen Stewart), one of the many Angels employed by the Townsend Agency, an expansion of the security firm the series is named for, has a frank exchange of ideas about womens’ place in the world with smug, workaday finance bro Johnny (Chris Pang), who struggles with the concept of feminine self-determination the way a caveman might struggle with the concept of algebra.
The conversation is a setup, of course. Johnny isn’t just a creep; he’s an international crook. Sabina’s there to bag him with backup from her fellow Angels, including erstwhile, no-nonsense MI-6 agent Jane (Ella Balinska). (They will re-team later once when the film’s main plot kicks in, but for the first few minutes, their purpose is to let everyone know that anything a dude can do, they can do better.) When the pair gets back together a year after the fact, they’re on the job protecting whistleblower Elena (Naomi Scott) after she threatens to spill the beans on her company for marketing the clean energy gizmo she developed, capable of being weaponized in the wrong hands but so obviously profitable that her boss (Nat Faxon) doesn’t give a shit. Cue car chases and gun fights buttressed by glamor shots.
Even though Stewart, Scott and Balinska whup every bad guy in their vicinity, Charlie’s Angels makes a barely adequate action movie. Instead, these scenes serve more as showcases of the individual energies of the film’s leads—Stewart’s cool, self-assured eccentricity, Balinska’s straight-faced balletic toughness, Scott’s deep reserves of goofball charm. (Someone write a whole screwball comedy around her, stat.) Director and screenwriter Elizabeth Banks is also Bosley, not simply a person but a rank within the Townsend Agency. As Bosley, Banks is the ladies’ pointwoman, their chief, their shotcaller and maybe the traitor in their midst. (But also maybe not—it’s a spy flick!)
For all her strengths as an actress and comedian, Banks seems more at home with banter, compassion and punchlines than set pieces, the latter of which are choppy and overstay their welcome, a reminder that the line separating “more” from “too much” is delicate and easily crossed. Instead of facilitating the plot, fight scenes and CGI explosions alike stymie it, documenting every beat without actually giving viewers a reason to invest themselves in the action. These sequences go immediately slack. It’s true that action films have built-in expectations, and that people go see these films knowing that ultimately the hero will triumph over the villain, but that makes the tension even more valuable. Charlie’s Angels has none. Whether that’s worse than clumsy editing is up to the viewer, but from top to bottom, none of the action here actually works.
What does work is the buddy hangout vibe Banks and her cast sustain together. If given the chance, any one of us would gladly chill with these characters, even if they lack much depth; the script points to failures and hardships in each of their pasts but doesn’t substantially build on any of them. Maybe it’s enough to mention them at all, especially as the movie makes a point of engaging with the workaday insults and injuries women endure just by going out in the world: Smile more, dress for men’s pleasure, be obedient, be fun, don’t ask questions. Taken as a whole, Charlie’s Angels paints a bit too broad a portrait of the obstacles to feminine agency. Taken in pieces, the portrait feels sharper. There’s a better way to tell the world that women are just as good as men, if not superior, at ass-kicking global espionage: Show it. Charlie’s Angels talks a good talk, but struggles to back up the talk with the drama necessary to make it worthwhile.
At least Stewart, Scott, and Balinska are having a good time, but they’re so switched on, and Charlie’s Angels is so switched off, that it sometimes feels like they’re in a totally different movie than the one Banks is making. You may end up wishing that you were in that movie with them.
Director: Elizabeth Banks
Writer: Elizabeth Banks
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, Ella Balinska, Elizabeth Banks, Patrick Stewart, Sam Claflin, Jonathan Tucker, Nat Faxon, Noah Centineo, Luis Gerardo Mendez, Djimon Honsou, Chris Pang
Release Date: November 15, 2019
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.