“I think women can do anything,” an undercover Kristen Stewart purrs in the very first line of “Charlie’s Angels,” thereby setting the tone — and the priority — for Elizabeth Banks’ rousing remake of this long-running franchise.
Gone are the Angels dancing in their underwear, as McG directed Cameron Diaz in the first film. No more ladies doting on an aging Bosley, as they did in every episode of the TV show. Angels 3.0 are doing it for themselves.
Well, not themselves exactly, since Bosley is still their boss. But in Banks’ world, the name is really more of a rank, “like lieutenant,” her character explains. There are many Bosleys now, including ones played by Banks and (an underused) Djimon Hounsou, as well as the OG embodied by Patrick Stewart.
Stewart’s character expanded the famed Charles Townsend Agency into a global spy organization, with highly trained women working undercover everywhere. Now that he’s retiring, Banks’ Bosley is overseeing the movie’s primary plot: how to keep a cutting-edge energy device from falling into the wrong hands.
Elena (Naomi Scott, “Aladdin” 2019), the engineer who programmed the device, has warned her boss (Nat Faxon) that it isn’t ready. In fact, until she completes the project, it could be used as a silent assassination tool. Oh, wait — is that the point?
Unfortunately, Elena is a little slow on the uptake, even as sociopathic billionaires (Chris Pang, Sam Claflin) make their own plans for the weapon. But Bosley’s already bringing Angels Sabina (Stewart) and Jane (Ella Balinska) in to save the day. This isn’t as easy as anyone hopes, and they wind up racing from Berlin to Istanbul with a single-minded assassin (Jonathan Tucker) on their trail.
The story gives Banks, who previously directed “Pitch Perfect 2”, an excuse for some expensive chases (car, horse) and explosions (car, house), but there are times when it seems she could have used some angels for backup herself. Banks is more than up to each of her tasks as the writer, director, producer, and co-star — and there are lots of great standalone moments — but taken as a whole, neither the script nor the direction are quite as sharp as they might have been.
The standard for popcorn action has risen considerably since McG made the first “Charlie’s Angels” feature in 2000, thanks to the “Mission Impossible” and Marvel franchises, among others. This effort lacks the visual elegance of those films, which is surprising, given the Istanbul setting and the impressive résumé of cinematographer Bill Pope (“The Matrix,” “Fur,” “The Jungle Book”). The editing is often choppy as well, undercutting much of the momentum Banks wants to build atop a relatively forgettable conflict.
On the other hand, her script is filled with the sharp-witted self-awareness necessary in 21st-century tentpoles, and it’s delivered by a mostly first-rate cast. There are lots of funny one-liners, and some knowingly goofy detours (one of which finds the Angels dancing to a Gigamesh remix of Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls,” a scene openly designed as a gift for Stewart’s fans). Ariana Grande served as one of the soundtrack producers, and her songs (which also feature Chaka Khan, Miley Cyrus, and Lana Del Rey) are used to strong effect throughout the movie.
Among the actors, only Scott has been miscast. She plays Elena as a wide-eyed, squeamish naïf who is tough both to root for as a potential spy and to believe in as an MIT-educated engineer. But Stewart has a grand time as Sabina, a confident, queer Angel who brings us into a new era while nicely honoring Kate Jackson’s original Sabrina (the best TV Angel, sorry Farrah fans). She also has great chemistry with Balinska, a natural action star who carries most of the movie’s fight scenes with tremendous charisma and skill.
Pang (“Crazy Rich Asians”) is the best of the villains, and Luis Gerardo Méndez (“Murder Mystery”) is charming as the Angels’ unflappable assistant. But Stewart is the supporting standout, bringing so much mischievous fun to each of his appearances that we wish there were more. There are lots of cameos, too, including some Bosleys and Angels — and a perfectly-chosen Charlie — who may look familiar.
The real asset Banks brings to the movie, though, is her own perspective. She builds the whole project on a scaffolding of sisterhood that feels so natural, it highlights Hollywood’s historic failures in this regard. These women wear what they want, love who they want, find fulfillment in their power, and support each other unconditionally. They’re not undermined by a script that highlights their flaws or insecurities, or a camera that reflexively leers at them. They get to just be, with all the freedoms and potential of any other fictional heroes.
The production notes for “Charlie’s Angels” call Banks’ inclusive, feminist approach a “bold vision.” The fact that this fervent description of a fairly routine action flick feels accurate suggests how far we have to go. But it’s impossible to watch the unapologetically empowered Stewart pull this 44-year-old franchise into the present without appreciating how far we’ve come, too.