I’ll give Charlie’s Angels this much: its heart is in the right place. It’s got big aspirations as it attempts to relaunch the classic glitzy spy brand while also updating it as a feminist franchise fit for our modern age. I could feel the behind-the-scenes calculations going into every decision as the creators — largely Elizabeth Banks, as writer and director — tried to strike the right balance between action and comedy, homage and revision, kick-ass boots and sky-high heels. Still, all those admirable ideas don’t quite gel into a satisfying whole — until a wowzer of a third act brings the entire enterprise into focus. Once the movie laid all its cards on the table in its final minutes, I was hooked, though honestly I’m probably more excited about where a Charlie’s Angels franchise could go from here than I am about this freshman effort.
At first glance, Charlie’s Angels is exactly what you expect. The film centers on a trio of talented operatives who are deployed to stop dangerous conspiracies by their handler, Bosley, and their mysterious benefactor, a voice on an intercom named Charlie. Only in this case, the trio isn’t really a trio at all. Sabina (Kristen Stewart) and Jane (Ella Balinska) are two members of the Townsend Agency who get along like oil and water, and their latest mission has them guarding Elena (Naomi Scott), a corporate whistleblower with assassins on her tail. While they may look like a trio, Elena isn’t actually an Angel at all, and the film is basically a prequel that lays the groundwork for their eventual team-up. Of course, the Townsend Agency itself looks a little different than you might recall. In the forty years since it was founded, the company has gone international, with offices and operatives stationed around the globe — and a whole lot more Bosleys, too. Patrick Stewart plays the original Bosley, who retires at the outset (cue adorable montage of young Stewart photoshopped into old stills from the previous iterations of Charlie’s Angels, just to close the loop on this being one shared universe). Casting Stewart in this role ends up being one of the cleverest decisions the movie makes, precisely because he comes with the baggage of all his decades playing the morally upright, trusted mentor, and that’s all I’ll say about that. Djimon Hounsou plays our next main Bosley, who travels with Sabina and Jane to Germany to collect Elena, until a big honking chase sequence forces Elizabeth Banks’s Bosley to step in and join the fun.
Elena is one of the lead engineers at a tech company working on a project called “Callisto” — a fancy MacGuffin that promises to be the next evolution in clean energy, operating off of WiFi or microwaves or flapping hands or something. Unfortunately, Callisto has a flaw that can be weaponized, meaning it’s basically a cross between a Google Nest and brain bomb — one that’ll fetch a pretty penny on the black market. The movie is mostly a chain of high stakes hijinks as our Angels try to save Elena, then recover the Callisto prototypes, then AGAIN try to get the Callisto prototypes, then try to save Elena AND Callisto… and it’s a bit of a slog. The action waffles between exciting and clunky, with set-ups that have little pay off (Kristen Stewart’s horse jockey stunt) and punches that sometimes literally fail to land. There’s also a higher body count than I was expecting for a movie that is actually fairly bloodless and makes a point of deploying a lot of fancy tranquilizers. But in between the disguises and the chases and the shoot-outs, you get glimpses of the other ideas the movie is trying to explore in understated ways.
Right off the bat, Elena faces a touchy-feely boss who takes credit for her work and won’t let her get a word in edge-wise. The Angels may have built their entire careers out of being underestimated because of their looks and their gender, but they aren’t the only women who face that in the work place — they just happen to be in a position to use it as a tool rather than a hurdle. At one point Jane reaches out to a former informant for help, and the payment for the woman’s information is several months worth of supplies to support a women’s clinic. Literally just a van full of birth control and tampons and a foot spa, because THAT SH*T IS PRICELESS. Stewart’s Sabina blatantly checks out women without making any grand declarations about her sexuality, while Jane has a meet-cute of the minds with Elena’s nerdy co-worker (Noah Centineo) that consists of little more than a couple of awkward flirtations about chemical compounds. Nobody has sex. Nobody dances in their underwear. Even when the glittery outfits run on the short side, the focus is on how practical they are to fight in rather than how well they display anyone’s bodies. It’s refreshing to see a movie that can acknowledge women as sexual creatures without having to parade it out front and center. Instead, Banks gets a whole riff about how she has a cheese-shaped hole inside of her that needs to be filled, because these women gotta EAT.
Sometimes the film is trying so hard to reconcile what people expect Charlie’s Angels to be with what it wants to be that it’s distracting, but looking back on it I think it was trying to teach you how to actually watch it as an audience. The climax, which involves a dance party and a lot of double-crossing, becomes a magnetic mission statement for the possibilities of the franchise moving forward, and is deeply satisfying in a way I wasn’t prepared for. Even Charlie gets a modern twist in keeping with the “who run the world?” theme, but the greatest joy comes in the last moments of the film as Elena goes back to the Townsend headquarters to undergo her official Angel training. A parade of cameos that I don’t want to spoil helps blow wide open the world of Charlie’s Angels. Familiar faces act as instructors and as classmates, and as the credits began to scroll I started imagining a whole Marvel-esque extended universe built off the back of this. I want a crossover with the gals from The Spy Who Dumped Me. I want a prequel about Banks’s pre-Bosley days, when she was just another Angel. I want a Netflix teen drama about new Angel recruits, living in dorms and learning how to spy together. The possibilities are endless.
Mostly though, I want to get a sequel where THIS trio really gets to shine, now that they’ve bonded and are all on equal footing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Kristen Stewart have this much fun in a movie — like, I’m all in on Action Hero KStew, and also I’d like her haircut and lipstick please — and by the end her chemistry with Balinska and Scott is rock solid. In fact, overall the cast is dynamite and smartly deployed, including supporting turns from Jonathan Tucker as the main assassin and Sam Claflin as the head tech bro in charge. Some jokes landed nimbly while others fell with a clatter, just like the action, but at the end of the day I’d rather watch more Charlie’s Angels than another James Bond flick. Even at its most imperfect, this movie is still fun — and at its finest, its proof that a female gaze can do wonders for this old franchise.