“Charlie’s Angels,” a brand that started as a 1970s TV series about a group of women who fight crime thanks to a mysterious benefactor, is from a bygone era in which female heroes had to be titillating. Sure, the angels could best the bad guys, but it was important that they looked fab-u-lous doing it. Perfect bodies, perfect hair, perfect makeup.
In 2000, the Angels made it to the big screen in a flashy tongue-in-cheek action extravaganza. It was a fun, over-the-top summer flick with a good sense of humor. But in re-watching the 2000 film, it was striking how much of the film was focused on sexualizing the leads.
Nearly all of the sleuthing involved baiting and duping men with their sexuality. In the sequel three years later, there was even more emphasis placed on sexuality. There was also a point in making sure each of the leads (Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu) had a love interest.
All of this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it tends to make the characters and films shallow. A case can be made that the films are supposed to be nothing more than brainless entertainment with beautiful women kicking ass.
While films that take this approach can still can be empowering, in the intervening years, female-led action films have become less centered on the exploitation of the female form and are more character and personality driven.
Which brings us to 2019’s “Charlie’s Angels.” The angels still look stunning while battling baddies — it is a part of the DNA of the concept after all — and occasionally use their feminine wiles to trick male targets, but there’s much more attention placed on the intellect, skills and technical prowess of the new leads (Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott and Ella Balinska).
The film is written and directed by Elizabeth Banks, replacing McG who directed the previous films. The switch to a female director makes a difference in how the angels are shot and presented. There’s far less focus on shots of cleavage, shaking booties or moments of near nudity. Instead, there’s more of an elegance in the angel attire. They still look beautiful, but it is more sophisticated. It is the difference between spring break and a black-tie affair.
In this incarnation, the Townsend Agency run by the unseen Charlie, has a whole team of angels. As always, their handler is Bosley (Banks), but, in an amusing twist, Bosley has become a title rather than a single person. Patrick Stewart appears as the original Bosley.
The film centers on the rebellious Sabina (Stewart) and straight-laced Jane (Balinska) protecting Elena (Scott), a programmer who helped create a new self-sustaining energy-source that she has discovered can be weaponized. Elena becomes an honorary angel as the trio tries to stop the technology from getting into the wrong hands.
There’s a terrific chemistry between Stewart, Balinska and Scott who share a genuine sense of sisterhood. There’s a real sense of affection and loyalty. The characters are smart, funny and more than competent in a fight.
Stewart, who was given a bad rap after the “Twilight” franchise, spent the last few years proving her acting chops in offbeat but little-seen indie films. As Sabina, Stewart is truly hilarious in a way she’s only hinted at in appearances on “Saturday Night Live.”
Her function is similar to Bill Murray in “Ghostbusters” or Groucho Marx in any number of films. Her flippant, dry line delivery is the perfect counterpoint to the action and absurdity surrounding her.
Star-on-the-rise Scott, whose performance as Jasmine was the best part of the live-action “Aladdin” earlier this year and who was also good as the Pink Ranger in 2017’s underrated “Power Rangers,” brings warmth, charm and wit to her role.
Balinska is the least familiar face, but she also has a dynamic screen presence. She is given some of the more dramatic material, and she helps to ground the film. Balinska also has a playfully combative, back-and-forth with Stewart.
Unfortunately, Banks’ script has stranded this tenacious trio in a generic plot that wastes too much time on a twist regarding the identity of the villain. A red-herring is seeded early in the film, and even the most casual filmgoer will know that it is a fake out. This leaves the audience stuck waiting for this tired plot point to play out.
Similar to the female-led “Ghostbusters” remake in 2016 — another film with better characters than plot — the rapport and sense of camaraderie of the leads is so good that a sequel would be welcomed. A concluding scene even teases other angel recruits in a couple of fun cameos.
Alas, “Charlie’s Angels” is a box office flop making only $10.8 million worldwide in its opening weekend. Even with a modest budget of $48 million, it will struggle to break even, which is too bad. These angels could have soared high if given the chance.