Every generation will always crave an iconic film or TV property to idolize and relate to. For some, it could be Star Wars, and hopefully for the right reasons. Others, it could be Little Women, which one will hope Greta Gerwig can be done with great justice. And for a small few, a very small few, it’s Charlie’s Angels. First a memorable 70s action series co-produced by Aaron Spelling, later succeeded by a turn-of-the-millennium A-listed led thrill ride that had every common moviegoer under its spell between its 2000 original and a sequel three years later. Where the misguided MIB and Ghostbusters reboots managed to bomb in the eyes of Sony execs, the margin of error for director/producer/co-writer Elizabeth Banks’s fresh spin on an otherwise dead franchise rather small. Long story short: nobody really asked for this, most of its intended demographic are likely to hold off a week for Frozen 2 to open. And yet, I’m not sure why I couldn’t keep from casually smiling throughout. After an awkward start (did we need an ESPN-esque sports athlete montage?), all gears ignite for a worthwhile thrill ride.
Mirroring the formula its predecessors had followed down to the letter, Banks’ angels follow in stride before branching out into their quiet quell of originality. Her leadership befitting her in-front-of-camera portrayal of a youthful Bosley, first name Rebekah, and one of many. The momma hen to a new generation of recruits, her hands are fuller than ever, with the original Bosley (Patrick Stewart) finally settling into a comfy retirement. In his 40 years as leader, the angels have spread into a globally recognized trend, with multiple outposts spread across the planet. It’s a fine system that wouldn’t necessarily break from tradition. But most missions these days could. And for Elena (Naomi Scott), she couldn’t be more excited and scared. A young computer scientist who’s lent months of energy into a modern-day Edisonian tech, she’s buzzing with glee to present her Calisto project to a mostly male group of honchos and investors, led by the forward-thinking Peter Fleming (Nat Faxon).
However, in genuine action-movie fashion, the big boss (Sam Claflin) decides to turn the tables, declaring his company’s motives to weaponize the tech, and incapacitate the handlers. Elena ends up lured into the realm of the Angels, her services insisted upon by fellow newcomers Sabina (Kristen Stewart) and Jane (Ella Balinska), a former MI-6 operative. Once the trio is united, it’s a powerful front that can soldier through nearly any conflict. Theirs hits a little too close to home after Jane’s Bosley (Djimon Hounsou) is declared lost in action. From there on, as they track down Fleming, the internal quandary grows more disconcerting.
Banks is no stranger to injecting honest fun and genuine personality into her films, both in front of and behind a camera. Only her second full-length feature as a director, following Pitch Perfect 2, she exudes that very same level of energy and confidence. Only musicality is sacrificed in favor of graceful physical movement. It’s her first written screenplay, adapting from an Evan Spiliotopolous (Beauty and the Beast) & David Auburn (The Lake House) story treatment. She is an absolute natural in merging genuinely witty prose with an otherwise stock plot, making it appear pristine out of nowhere.
The same goes for Miss Stewart, who through Banks’s vision, effortlessly reconnects with her inner sense of rocker-chick sarcasm. She doles out an endless array of ironic remarks, whilst showing off some decent fighting moves. Call it the side of Kristen that’s been missing since the days of American Ultra, perhaps even the last in the Twilight saga. Yes, she’s possessed a handful of enjoyable arthouse leads in her recent track record. Those works of hers are admirable in effort, 2016’s Certain Women especially. But her openness to returning toward the mainstream, in perhaps her most convincing and demandingly diverse character as of late? That only would easily be the film’s most commendable attribute.
Scott, whose chops have grown in stride following Aladdin, is more the decision-maker of the three, proud in her pursuits. And perhaps giving those young computer enthusiasts in the audience yet another reason to aspire. Balinska is perhaps the raw wild card of the three, where it’s impossible to predict her volatility until she’s staring danger in the face. Then it’s an all-out firestorm of choices both good and bad. A valuable reminder that credibility is key, especially when that is far from standard with our male characters. Faxon offends the most, flexing her control as Elena’s overbearing superior, reinforcing the male-enforced side of a professional workplace. Sir Patrick is still an ebullient joy, even if he cannot be fully trusted. And Claflin’s too menacing for his own good, to the point where his presence eventually turns unnecessary, the more we know about him. Thankfully, not all the dudes are bad. There’s Elena’s tech geek boyfriend (Noah Centineo), he’s actually quite purposeful to the ladies’ plight. As is the noble Saint (Luis Gerardo Méndez), a cuddly assistant who’s equal parts healthy chef, chiropractor, and therapist.
I bear plenty shame in how unfamiliar I truly am to the Angels-verse, never having grown up with the classic show (or its ill-advised 2011 reboot) And having also been too young to see the 2000 film with the powerhouse trio of Barrymore, Liu, and Diaz, there was the concern of feeling lost in that ether. I’m sure some will appreciate the detailed eye for nostalgia, as apparent references or cameos will allow.
But much of those nods flew over my head; my focus was more on whether there was enough of a cohesive story to follow. At times, the story may turn needlessly gruesome; it’s not afraid to show a few wounds and a lot of blood. And yet, that strength in empowerment and that bond of friendship prevailed. A noble relief, which should be something to expect out of Banks as a director in the future. Unparalleled to its predecessors, and yet rewarding and refreshing on its own merit, this iteration of Charlie’s Angels certainly deserves to stand on its own, proud in its celebration of modern-day feminism. At least before it runs out of gas to properly warrant a follow-up. (B-; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
Charlie’s Angels is in most area theaters this weekend; rated PG-13 for action violence, language, and some suggestive material; 118 minutes.