The latest reboot of “Charlie’s Angels” sends some strange mixed messages.
Its theme of women’s empowerment tempered by a fear of clean energy, the latest reboot of the popular ’70s TV series “Charlie’s Angels” sends some strange mixed messages. But director-producer-star Elizabeth Banks, while remaining faithful to the core you-go-girl values, has enough fun with the concept of female spies that her Charlie’s Angels sometimes comes off like a spy parody. More than the spirited but indifferently edited action scenes, that’s what makes the movie work, and its goofy comic spirit comes from a surprising source: Kristen Stewart.
These aren’t the angels of 40 years ago – well, not all of them, anyway. In terms of sex appeal, Jane (newcomer Ella Balinska) may be the most conventional of the trio. Tall and athletic, she spars in the boxing ring with Bosley (Djimon Hounsou) and is happy to flirt when she’s on assignment. Elena (Naomi Scott), an angel in training, is the smartest of the women, and it’s her struggle that sets the plot in motion. She works for a firm that’s developing a clean energy device called Calisto (in Greek mythology, she was impregnated by Zeus and turned into a bear; this seems relevant). However, Elena tries to stop the product from going public because she knows that, in the wrong hands, the devices can be weaponized (are we suspicious of clean energy capitalism, screenwriters?), and she tries in vain to warn the project’s lead developer (Sam Claflin, the brutal officer in The Nightingale). Noticing that she’s being ignored in her workplace, the Townsend Agency recruits her for potential angel material.
Which leaves Sabina (Stewart) as the oddest angel, and the most flamboyant. Many of her costume changes, from leopard prints to hot-pink jockey suit with a lightning bolt, tap a glam vibe that feels like she’s an ‘80s kid in thrall to the ‘70s culture she absorbed from her big sister. Now, such conspicuous costume changes may seem like poor strategy for a spy. But her distinctive delivery goes in the opposite direction.
Sidebar: Remember when Stewart, as well as her co-star Robert Pattinson, was roundly criticized for wooden, inexpressive performances in the Twilight series? Improbably, both stars of the Young Adult franchise have since become favored by arthouse directors who tap their generation’s disaffectedness for something very specific and peculiar. Stewart has been effective in understated dramatic roles in Personal Shopper and Certain Women, but even Café Society doesn’t prepare viewers for the dry comic timing she shows here.
As Sabina, her character is supposed to be the wacky, impulsive smart aleck of the group, her biting repartee emerging from a brain without a filter. In other hands, her role would be insufferably smug, but she reads her lines dryly, which has always been her jam. She’s funny precisely because she doesn’t sound like she’s trying to be funny. Imagine any other actor saying a line like “Mo’ money, mo’ problems.” Stewart, who for her is hamming it up, treats it like a throwaway, hitting the humor off the side instead of straight on or in your face. If you’ve been fascinated by her career turns in prestige pictures, her take on this different kind of young adult product is another unexpected development. This is Hollywood fluff, albeit in the service of Girl Power, but Banks encourages Stewart to make weird hay out of the material, and the way she runs with it is something to see.
Wait, what about Patrick Stewart? As an elder Bosley, he’s just hammy enough, though that acting style is oil and water with the other Stewart on screen. If you’re wondering, “Bosley” is treated here as a rank; hence, there are multiple Bosleys, including one played by director Elizabeth Banks who leads the angels through a plot to save the world from the dangers of Calisto.
For all its jet-setting and costume changes and ass-kicking, Charlie’s Angels feels a little long at 118 minutes; a snappier edit would have made the interplay zingier and the action scenes more coherent and resourceful. But Banks, with her second feature, has made an effective and slightly subversive product. Maybe it could even be weaponized – who’s to say?