For all its nostalgic charm, the “Charlie’s Angels” brand - born as a TV series in the 1970s, then followed by a hit 2000 movie, an underperforming sequel and a short-lived ABC series - was hardly crying out for a reboot.
But the Hollywood mandate for recycling familiar intellectual property bows to no logic. Thus, a new "Charlie's Angels" has arrived, bearing a few modern twists from writer-director Elizabeth Banks, who prioritizes empowerment over objectification. Instead of three spies employed by an unseen Charlie and his on-screen deputy Bosley, the Angels now are part of a global network of female operatives, overseen by the still-invisible Charlie and a team of interchangeable Bosleys (played by Banks, Patrick Stewart, Djimon Hounsou and others). The movie ends with franchise-building mid-credits sequences, straight out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe playbook.
Most of the "Angels" archetypes remain intact: The central trio is composed of clever scientist Elena (Naomi Scott, fresh from the live-action "Aladdin"), former MI-6 agent Jane (Ella Balinska) and wisecracking live-wire Sabina (Kristen Stewart). As the movie begins, Sabina and Jane are card-carrying Angels, and Elena is the reluctant recruit. They assemble, with support from Banks' Bosley, to traverse the globe tracking shadowy figures seeking to weaponize a revolutionary clean-energy device (one that might as well bear the insignia "MacGuffin").
There's a car chase, several shootouts and a heist. None transcends the genre, though Banks' steady hand doles out comedy and action in agreeable proportion. Violent high jinks aside, the story offers little that's surprising or even particularly tense, and a few halfhearted attempts to add dramatic weight fall flat.
The movie fits into the recent trend of upgrading beloved film properties with nods to inclusion and diversity: "Ghostbusters," "Ocean's Eight," and "The Hustle" all foregrounded female characters in stories previously dominated by men. "Charlie's Angels" opts instead to weave references to the oppressive patriarchy into the story and dialogue. But both approaches fall short. The only real measure of progress would be to see more original stories that showcase underrepresented perspectives, unburdened by the baggage of franchise history.
Some of the grace notes in "Charlie's Angels" are novel, at least. The male characters (played by Nat Faxon, Sam Claflin and Netflix heartthrob Noah Centineo, among others) perpetrate a laundry list of toxic offenses: telling a woman to smile, ignoring a female colleague's insights, underestimating a woman's physical prowess. The only man (Luis Gerardo Méndez) who earns sympathy is literally called the Saint; he's the angels' concierge, in charge of maintaining a steady supply of cheese, wine and massages.
The most important feature of a movie like this is the alchemical combination of the title characters. Newcomer Balinska is given the least to work with, but she carries off a tearful scene, played for laughs. Scott gets mileage from Elena's burgeoning self-righteousness.
Stewart, however, upstages everyone, from the opening close-up on her gleeful grin to her array of colorful costumes, riotous non sequiturs and unconventional posture choices. Although Banks has described Sabina as "definitely gay," the movie stays dispiritingly circumspect on the matter, save for one longing glance.
For some, the "Twilight" series cemented a view of Stewart as swooning but sullen, and nothing else. She has since demonstrated a wider range, delivering intriguing art house performances in such films as "Clouds of Sils Maria," which garnered the actress the French equivalent of an Oscar.
Stewart's unexpected casting here, in a frothy action comedy, injects the movie with a shot of much-needed unpredictability. Of all the Angels, she works the hardest, ensuring that the movie isn't forgettable.
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Two and one-half stars. Rated PG-13. Contains action, violence, strong language and some suggestive material. 119 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.