Do We Really Need a Woke ‘Charlie’s Angels’?
Elizabeth Banks’ Charlie’s Angels kicks off with a pro forma provocation. “I think women can do anything,” says undercover secret agent Sabina Wilson (Kristen Stewart), echoing a sentiment as old as Gloria Steinem’s bunny ears. True, the still-unratified Equal Rights Amendment is inching up to its 100th anniversary. And, even in 2019, ladies are woefully underpaid and underrepresented in politics, business, sports, and the movie industry. So it’s chronically depressing that such a hoary declaration bears repeating. But it’s still a hella-hoary declaration.
CHARLIE’S ANGELS ★★ (2/5 stars)
Directed by: Elizabeth Banks
Written by: Elizabeth Banks
Starring:Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, Ella Balinska, Djimon Hounsou, Sam Claflin, Patrick Stewart
Running time: 119 min
Can we all agree that at least some progress is clear and present? This year is already a watershed for XX-chromosome cinema. To name-check just a few: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Claire Denis’ High Life, Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, Nisha Ganatra’s Late Night, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Melina Matsoukas’ Queen & Slim, Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. Their very existence, to say nothing of their undeniable quality, is a virtuosic testament to K-Stew’s empowerment-cliché soundbite.
That said, if Charlie’s Angels is any sort of feminist filmmaking statement, then it’s proof that girls are just as capable as boys at making generic action flicks with a deadening lack of ingenuity. The movie isn’t a total flatline: bereft of a clever plot, Banks’s script basically scrapes by on charm and sass. And, as a charming, sassy actor-turned-director herself, she knows how to coax it out of her game starlets.
Deadly ditz Sabina is a gender-fluid flirt. Amazonian assassin and former MI-6 agent Jane Kano (
) has a stern Brit veneer that masks a frisky soul. And fresh-faced scientist Elena Houghlin (Naomi Scott) finds her moral compass—plus a new career in international espionage—when mansplaining bosses steal her tech for nefarious means. The angelic trio have a winsome chemistry, and being with them for two hours can be a hoot.
Except viewers also need to suffer through the idiotic MacGuffin plot involving the aforementioned tech, an octagonal light-flashing Magic 8 Ball called Calisto. “Clean energy for everyone,” says sleazy millennial entrepreneur Alexander Brok (Sam Claflin), whose Brok Industries aims to upend the power industry. Apparently one of these softball-sized gizmos is a steroidal generator that can light up a skyscraper with a voice command. But the wrong hands can also weaponize Calisto by making the devices emit deadly electro-magnetic pulses. And now Qatari princes are lining up to buy them.
So begins the globe-trotting adventure, where the hip heroines traipse through Rio, Hamburg, Berlin, Istanbul and the posh Gallic playground Chamonix. Sure, they’re tough as nails, but they’ve also never met a dress-up closet they didn’t like and cycle through wigs, weapons, and clothes with gleeful abandon. This is where the Charlie’s Angels IP struts its have-their-cake-and-eat-it-too glam slams: these women are serious professionals, but they’re also girls who just want to have fun. Oh, is there also a dance floor? Let’s dance in perfect sync.
The story dutifully hits all the dumb marks of any up-to-date action movie, whether it’s a suave James Bond outing or the latest Fast and Furious output. Banks makes sure to include explosive set pieces, sudden reversals of fortune, and dream-logic geography where our protagonists seems to know intuitively how to navigate foreign buildings and strange mansions with aplomb. And she dutifully pays tribute to the woke zeitgeist by having Patrick Stewart deliver condescending zingers like “The world is on fire. I’m sure your generation is going to figure it all out.” OK, Boomer.
Diverting, maddening, and rarely ever inspired, Charlie’s Angels is a well-intentioned mess. It also begs the question: is this ’70s relic, originally crafted as a leering male fantasy of female authority, worth reviving? Banks apparently thinks so, and maybe her Hollywood clout can course-correct for any potential sequels.