Back when Gerald Ford was president and people drank something out of a carton called Tang, there was once a TV series called “Charlie’s Angels.” It entailed the adventures of three gorgeous agents, played by Farrah Fawcett, Kate Jackson, and Jaclyn Smith, who fought crime and answered to a mysterious benefactor named Charlie (voiced by John Forsythe but never seen). The show ran from 1976 to 1981. I was not one of those kids who had the famous Fawcett poster on his wall (that space was saved for Darth Vader and John Rambo). On the other hand, as a child of the ‘80s, I do remember the show replacing its three leads with a revolving door of new Angels, among them Tanya Roberts, who was one of the great celebrity crushes of my young life. Ah, Tanya Roberts… Sorry, what was I talking about? 

In 2000, we got the campy but exhilarating film adaptation, in which the Angels were played by Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, and Lucy Liu. A key to that film’s success was how, in spite of some fierce action set pieces (aided by post-Matrix wire work and extensive martial arts battles), it never lost sight of what it was: a parody. A major problem of this new take on Charlie’s Angels is that it’s never entirely sure of what it is.

The 2019 version has the trio played by Kristen Stewart, Ella Balinska, and Naomi Scott, with the new Bosley embodied by Elizabeth Banks, who is also the film’s writer and director. While the “plot” to these movies matters as little here as it did in the TV version, here it is: The Angels are trying to stop the widespread production of an invention called Calisto, which resembles a Rubik’s Cube and has sinister potential. It plays like a bad “Black Mirror.”

Like many recent movies I enjoyed in the moment but instantly forgot afterwards (the cinematic equivalent of mall food), the latest take on this franchise is flashy, sassy, and empty. It comes closest to working during the busy second half but, while it’s not exactly dull, it really drags. 

As a comedy, it’s rarely funny and the action sequences mostly fall short. This latter quality is especially disheartening, as we’re constantly aware of the hyper-editing choices and choreography – the fight scenes appear as rehearsed as the forced dance number that pops up. 

I kept wondering, who are these people? The screenplay is constantly introducing new characters who have little substance and randomly appear and disappear. When we learn that one character is potentially double-crossing the other, I had difficulty caring. At least it looks fantastic, thanks to Bill Pope, the wunderkind cinematographer who also worked for Sam Raimi and the Wachowskis. 

There’s no center to the duo, as Stewart, the film’s biggest name, doesn’t seem right for her role. Stewart is playing, in her character’s words, an “annoying” chatterbox (a role that was clearly written for someone like Anna Kendrick); while she appears to be enjoying herself, the actress never carries this. Scott, playing the “brainy” Angel, is better but stuck in a one-note part. The best by far is Balinska, whose athleticism and ease with the material frequently dazzles. Her work here hopefully indicates a future in film, in which she will take the lead and not be weighed down in movies like this. 

The biggest culprit to why this doesn’t work is Banks, whose over-extended supporting turn as Bosley comes across as a vanity role. Banks is a work in progress as a filmmaker, though her intention of re-shaping what has always been a sexist male fantasy into a more politically correct vision is effective. The theme of sisterhood and female empowerment comes across. This is the opposite of a deep movie but the moments that reflect recent post-Me Too reports and instill feminist values register strongly (at least, more so than anything in Captain Marvel). If the entire movie had that kind of identity and self-assurance, Banks would have really had something. The best thing I can say about this overall is that I dug the soundtrack and that, thankfully, it’s better than Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle.

A last-minute ditch effort to juice this up is in end credits, offering a fleet of cameos. None of the pop-up appearances include Tanya Roberts, though, so what’s the point?

Two Stars

Rated PG-13/118 Min

Image courtesy IMDB

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