Back in 2000, the glossy relaunch of Charlie’s Angels felt like a genuine pop culture event. The central casting of Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu, all at the height of their fame, was an impressively inspired get. The accompanying lead single from Destiny’s Child was not only a smash hit but a deserved one. The gaudy aesthetic and post-Matrix bullet time action were laughable but also undeniably of the moment. It was the most 2000 film released in 2000, and at the time it was impossible to avoid – a slick, pre-packaged blockbuster received with as much enthusiasm as it was made. Almost 20 years, one sequel and one failed TV series later, the franchise is back, but all that buzz has been replaced with something else: deafening silence.
The sub-par marketing campaign and sub-sub-par lead track from Miley Cyrus, Ariana Grande and Lana Del Rey haven’t landed with much of an impact, while the new trio (one recognisable star and two question marks) don’t bring with them the same curiosity factor as their noughties foremothers. Tracking for an opening of less than $15m, compared with the 2000 iteration’s $40m without inflation, there seems to be a sense of apathy, or even worse, unawareness from audiences for the latest refresh, easily dismissed as an inevitable rather than necessary product. It might sound like faint praise to say Charlie’s Angels 2019 is slightly better than expected, but in another year of ill-conceived reboots, it’s a depressingly low bar.
What’s striking, and refreshing, about the latest version is that it’s written and directed by a woman, an attempted course correct for a franchise that’s typically been associated with a rather leery male gaze. It’s the first screenplay and second film as director for Elizabeth Banks, a predominantly comic actor who’s edged her way deeper into Hollywood by moving further behind the scenes. It also boasts a story credit from the Pulitzer prize-winning playwright David Auburn, proof of which I would dare anyone to recognise, given how scrappy the narrative feels, thrashing around carelessly from country to country, set piece to set piece.
The plot brings together three new angels, two of whom are already embedded within the Townsend agency and one of whom is an unlikely recruit. There’s Sabina (Kristen Stewart), whose quippy nature irks the more serious-minded Jane (British newcomer Ella Balinska), and both are protecting whistleblower Elena (Aladdin’s Naomi Scott), who fears for the dangers attached to a new power source her company is developing. After a meeting goes sour, the three are on the run along with their Bosley (Banks), or in this universe one of many Bosleys (who also include Patrick Stewart, Djimon Hounsou and, er, Michael Strahan, because … sure) and they must work together to find a way to save the world … in style.
It’s an initial relief to find that Banks hasn’t decided to go the way of so many reboots and bring us a grounded, gritty take on featherlight material, and it’s her awareness of the inherent silliness of the franchise that proves to be one of the film’s saving graces. It’s never taken too seriously, and thus is hard to dislike, a disposable film aware of its own disposability. But there’s enough that proves to be entertaining to make one wish it was just that bit better. Key to the film’s formula is a balancing act between action and comedy, as in previous incarnations, and somehow Banks manages to fall short on both. The script is a polish or two away from really flying, with so many one-liners tanking, and the dynamic between the three women never truly sparks in the way one would hope. The action is similarly underwhelming and often incoherently edited, whether it’s a fight scene or a car chase, and when the laughs and stunts are paired, there’s a shortage of fizz, like a glass of champagne that’s been left out too long.
The actors are game, though, and while post-Twilight Stewart has often struggled to juggle bigger roles with her mostly exceptional work on the indie outskirts (she made for a dry, disengaged Snow White), she’s more comfortable here, having fun as the comedy support, trying her darnedest to add humour to a script that’s sorely lacking. Her character is allegedly queer, although all we get is a brief look to confirm it, another much-hyped yet rather damp attempt to provide multiplex visibility for the LGBT community. Newcomer Balinska and Scott are solid enough, bringing energy to less fleshed-out characters, while Stewart has some fun chewing scenery around them.
There are mixed attempts from Banks to try to modernise the gender politics. While a sharper awareness of how men underestimate the skills and physical competency of women is nicely heightened and the trio are made to be sexy without being turned into sex objects, there are other flourishes that don’t work as well. After the cold open, Banks inserts a clumsy, cheap-looking montage of random girls and young women before the film’s title, which feels more like a deodorant ad than the start of a mainstream movie, while the sisterhood and intense bond between the three angels feels baseless and lacking in texture. It makes the decision to almost entirely eradicate love interests in place of female friendship better conceptually than on screen.
It’s forgettable on reflection, but pacey in the moment, proving to be far less wretched a watch than so many other creatively bankrupt IP resurrections of late. It’s better than it could have been while also not being quite good enough to warrant any further instalments.