I recently went on a trip that took me through three European cities and Washington D.C. in a span of four days. It was somewhere around 21 hours of flight time, plus another 10 hours of layovers and delays. While there's really no silver lining in spending an entire day on an airplane, it did offer me the chance catch up on several movies I meant to watch. Six of them, to be precise. So I'm going to do my best to write a half dozen reviews over the next week or so - starting with this one.
I wrote a separate article about why I think Charlie's Angels bombed in the box office, which I suspect has little to do with the strong feminist messaging in the film. Feel free to have a look and let me know what you think. As always, I'll offer a spoiler free review up front and then a warning before I start into the spoilers. So if you haven't seen the film yet, you can stop reading wherever you feel most comfortable.
Elena Houghlin is a scientist, engineer and inventor of Calisto - a sustainable energy source that will revolutionize the way people use power. But when the cutting edge technology falls into the wrong hands, Elena turns to the Townsend Agency for help. Now, it's up to the Angels - Jane, Sabina and the newly recruited Elena - to retrieve Calisto before it can be transformed into a weapon of mass destruction.
This film is produced, directed and co-written by Elizabeth Banks (Hunger Games; The Uninvited), who also holds a starring role as the Angels current boss, Rebekah Bosley. Kristen Stewart (Snow White and the Huntsman; Underwater) stars as Sabina Wilson, a wild and somewhat rebellious Angel who also serves as the comic relief. Ella Balinska (Hunted) stars as Jane Kano, a former MI-6 agent turned Angel, who does most of the heavy lifting for the group. Naomi Scott (Aladdin; Power Rangers) plays Elena Houghlin, an engineer, programmer and sometimes hacker. And Patrick Stewart (Star Trek) takes on the role of John Bosley, who is about to retire from the Townsend Agency.
There are also a surprising number of cameos, including: Jaclyn Smith (original Charlie's Angels), Djimon Hounsou (Captain Marvel; Shazam!), Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit), Lili Reinhart (Riverdale), Laverne Cox (Orange is the New Black), two-time U.S. Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman, U.S. Olympic snowboarder Chloe Kim, MMA star Ronda Rousey, Indy and stock car driver Danica Patrick, and former Giants defensive end Michael Strahan.
No Spoilers Review
The story is more or less what you'd expect from the Charlie's Angels franchise. There's an obvious antagonist in Peter Flemming (Nat Saxon). But he is just one member of a more complex plot that revolves an unknown "big bad." This leaves the Angels to solve a mystery using their detective skills, spy training and penchant for head-on confrontations. There are a couple of twists along the way, which ultimately culminates in a surprise reveal of the big bad's identity towards the end of the film.
There are plenty of clandestine missions, precarious moments, armed and unarmed combat, chase scenes and international globe-trotting that one would expect from a spy-themed action film. Despite this, I think the film often undermines its reason for being: a less sexist and more empowering reboot of a female led franchise. As you might expect, writer-director-producer Elizabeth Banks offers up a generous helping of female empowerment messaging throughout the film. Much of it is well delivered, to be honest. But there are moments where the execution seems flawed - even heavy handed - as she attempts to check every modern feminist issue and sexist stereotype off the list.
Somewhat awkwardly, Banks chose to embrace a handful of stereotypes through the film's protagonists. Sabina plays the part of the "dumb blonde." While it's well-intended as comic relief, the trope teeters on being painfully scripted and risks making the character unlikable. Jane's persona is closer to a common male action hero stereotype - she likes guns, explosions and hand-to-hand combat, but has a hard time expressing herself or sharing her feelings. Elena is a genius engineer and programmer who lacks any practical skills and sometimes seems devoid of common sense. Although, she does evolve through the film to become a more confident and well-rounded character - in large part, she's the only character that goes through any semblance of personal growth.
Where the feminist messaging starts to feel overbearing is in the portrayal of the male characters. Virtually all of them are sullen, impulsive, self-absorbed, aloof and constantly underestimating the women around them. To some degree, this is expected. But nowhere in the film does this feel like more of a stretch than with former Angels manager John Bosley, played by Patrick Stewart (more on that in the spoilers section).
Overall, I think it works fine as a globe-trotting, spy-centric action film. However, it fails to deliver on its true intent: an engaging, empowering and inspiring, female-led, action film with respectable ambitions of shaking up the genre.
[*** Warning: the remainder of this review contains spoilers ***]
Not Quite Stereotypical Angels
In my opinion, this is probably the most attractive Angels trio to ever grace the screen. But unlike previous installments in the franchise, the film generally shys away from making 'sexy' a major part of their character. This is for good reason, of course. It would be hard to deliver the underlying message if they were objectified the entire time. However, there are two notable exceptions.
The introduction to Sabina (Kristen Stewart) finds her glammed up and entertaining a person of interest in a romantic balcony scene. She's sporting a sparkly mini-dress, shiny silver stilettos, a curly blonde wig and manicured pink nails. This is all a ruse, of course, so the Angels can capture the target. But there are multiple closeups on Stewart that seem intended to force the male gaze. That's not to mention, her sultry lines and playful footing of the target's unmentionable regions.
There was a clear intent with this scene, though. It was meant to show that these women are far more than meets the eye. Sabina's lines near the end of this scene make it pretty clear where Banks was going:
“In my line of work, it’s considered an advantage to be a woman. If you’re beautiful, nothing else is expected of you. And if you’re not, you practically don’t exist.”
The other exception is a scene towards the end of the film. The Angels are at an event where they would surely be recognized, despite their half attempt at disguises. Nonetheless, they run out on the dance floor and make a scene that no one (man or woman) could possibly miss. It's a curious deviation from the rest of the film; and unlike the previous scene, I'm not entirely sure what purpose it was meant to serve.
The Laughs Were Lackluster
In her role as Sabina, Kristen Stewart serves as the main source of comic relief in this film. Her "blonde moments" are augmented by the character's general quippiness and propensity to make light of dangerous situations, in a respectable effort to give the audience some laughs. Sometimes, it works; sometimes it doesn't.
Stewart has demonstrated she has the range to do comedy. Not stand-up, laugh out loud material, necessarily; but the ability to successfully deliver under-the-breath jokes and clever one liners. I think the problem is that it was only partly her brand of comedy. She was given the opportunity to ad lib during the scenes, as she revealed in her interview with Cinema Blend. Those might be the lines that actually landed, but the rest was scripted for her. In some cases, it wasn't really funny at all.
For example, there's a moment where they're on a mission and she's supposed to be the lookout. But she gets distracted by a cute dog and completely misses a major threat to her fellow Angels. It's not that it's all bad. It's just that we're missing some of the lighthearted fun of the earlier material, which made it feel somewhat out-of-style for the franchise.
Men are Either Awful, Useless or Both
With exception to The Saint (Luis Gerardo Méndez) - the Angel's technology and weapons expert, physiologist, combat trainer, personal masseuse and chef - all of the men in this film are generally of poor character. And if they're not, then they don't play any discernible role. If a moniker like 'The Saint' and his long list of domestic skills wasn't enough of a giveaway about the character, they make it painfully obvious that he plays the model male archetype when he very deliberately asks Elena for her consent before adjusting a crick in her spine.
Again, I'll say this was somewhat expected in a film that was focused on female empowerment. And to be fair to the franchise, men are often the villains and women are often the victims (aside from the Angels). But I think they take it just a little too far in this reboot. Not only are all the antagonists men, but they're all poor-tempered, impulsive, conceited and constantly underestimating the women around them.
Where this seemed the most ridiculous to me was the plot twist with John Bosley being the big bad. I saw it coming well before the reveal, but that didn't make it any easier to swallow. John Bosley was one of Charlie's most trusted assistants - it's ostensibly the same Bosley that that was previously played by Bill Murray and the late David Doyle. If anyone would know what the Angels are capable of, it's him. Yet, he seems to forget all of that while he plays out his half-cocked plan to frame Rebekah Bosley, in hopes of taking over the Townsend Agency. In my mind, it seems unreasonable to portray that Bosley as a man that would threaten the Townsend Agency and the world to satisfy his own self-interest.
The Final Action Scene Risks Undermining the Entire Message
The closing action scene finds the trio surrounded with little hope of escape. But suddenly, every man in the room drops unconscious to the ground. Moments later, it's revealed that almost every woman in the room is actually an Angel - they've knocked them all out and saved the day. What's more, these Angels have been along for the ride the entire time. A brief flashback montage shows us that they've been scattered throughout multiple scenes as unassuming supporting characters or background characters.
This is obviously meant to be a heartfelt message about sisterhood and the bond between women. It also plays on the lines from the opening scene with Sabina - her suggestion that women are often invisible. But I fear this undermines the entire premise of the female empowerment theme. Because it suggests that the Angels didn't actually do this alone. There were dozens of other Angels in the shadows helping them to achieve their goals. That is to say, the three main protagonists wouldn't have made it without the help they didn't realize they were getting. Is that really in line with the underlying message?
Let us know your thoughts in the comments or on social media. Did you enjoy the film? How did the messaging resonate with you? Are you hoping to see another franchise film in the future?