There is nothing really remarkable about the 2019 iteration of ’70s classic TV staple Charlie’s Angels.
In overly-intimate trope-embracing fashion, it ticks all the boxes audiences either expect or have given up trying to expect a change from – expansive worldwide locations, mysterious bad guys (or women?), large-scale action pieces and video clip aesthetic that dazzles the senses and sends the heart racing with a palpably constant injection of adrenaline at every turn.
In other words, it is the very personification of the modern espionage action blockbuster.
While some franchises like Mission: Impossible and Bourne have managed to take these set pieces and run merry with them, placing their own stamp on genre pieces so tired and over-used you can practically see the creases between scenes, Charlie’s Angels, directed by actor-filmmaker Elizabeth Banks, seems content to happily arrange them to pleasing effect and leave it at that.
It’s all eminently forgettable in one sense and yet you find yourself drawn into the connect the dots narrative thanks largely to some memorable performances, principally from Kristen Stewart, who shines with sass and vigour as capably witty, seemingly ambivalent Angel Sabina, Elizabath Banks who exudes a cheeky cleverness as Bosley (she is but one of the Bosleys in the new global Townsend Agency, where the name is a rank) and Naomi Scott as accidental newby recruit who is the lead programmer on a too-good-to-be-true project known as Calisto which has the potential to solve the world’s energy issues well into the future.
Each of these actors, along with Ella Balinska as the third Angel, Jane Kano, sparkle with verve and vigour, and a pleasing sense that highly-trained women will be just fine looking after themselves, thank you.
While not a feminist polemic in James Bond-ian clothing, Charlie’s Angels nonetheless places its female characters, who blessedly make up the vast majority of the cast, front and centre, leaving them as the architects and executors of their own successes or failures.
This is where this largely derivative film, which is, to be fair a lot of fun to watch, infused with a devil-may-care brio that is refreshingly bright and effusive in a way its cinematic predecessors (2000’s Charlie’s Angels and 2003’s Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, to which the 2019 iteration plays amusing homage at one point via some deliberately bad photoshopping), very much stakes its own limited claim to some originality.
Sending the men off to play the part of shortsighted thugs, conniving wannabe power players and superficial tech industrialists, Charlie’s Angels elevates its central cast, which is as you’d expect the Angels and Banks’ Bosley, without once appearing condescending or tokenistic.
That’s partly down to the script by Elizabeth Banks which assumes, quite rightly, that women are as eminently capable of saving the world as men – this welcome line of though is given early prominence as Sabina engages in a spirited and yet calculated discussion with money-stealing criminal Jonny Smith (Chris Pang) who she is about to take a misogynistic peg or two – and that they will manage with a great deal less messiness and far more good grace.
Also bolstering the film’s commitment to a more modern #MeToo sensibility is the fact that Angels are entirely capable of looking after themselves.
At no point in a fairly prosaic story that takes us from Hamburg & Berlin to London and Istanbul, with the appropriately-cliched opening shots and scene-setting music, do any men of any description swoop in to save the day.
They don’t need to in a film where the Angels might be bested from time to time because there’s no such thing as a hero who is all conquering all the time, but where they are never, ever defeated.
The genius here is that Banks never sets them up as anything other than very, appealingly, sometimes fallibly human.
Take Elena who as the lead programmer on Calisto develops very real concerns that the new promising technology can be weaponised, leading to the possibility that people could be assassinated via virtually non-detectable brain-disrupting EMP pulses.
Taking her concerns to the Angels, or more specifically, another Bosley played by Djimon Hounsou, she thinks they will come in, take care of the buddies, see justice done and she can go back to life as she knows it.
That is, of course, not even remotely what happens.
The bad guys who wants Calisto for their own nefarious ends attack the cafe where she is meeting Bosley and set in train a series of highly-charged and video clip worthy choreographed events which see Elena’s life get changed for the worse, and because this is, like its ’70s TV predecessor gleefully bombastic feel good diversionary entertainment, for the better by the end of the film which happily continues its wrapping up into the credits (so stay put for the first part of end-of-movie proceedings).
She proves herself capable by the end of course but on the way to her changed circumstances, she exhibits the same kinds of frailties and fears any of us would, grounding her as a character and the film as a whole in a nicely human place.
The same goes for Sabina and Jane, who though they have their A-game on at all games, aren’t above some tomfoolery and quipping and some very genuine concerns about where everything is leading.
Perhaps it’s a product of the postmodern vulnerable mindset that suffuses, successfully for the most part, most modern action thrillers but it works a treat in a film that advances the idea that the Angels might be eminently capable and brilliantly good at what they do while also being winningly, accessibly human.
It doesn’t help Charlie’s Angels to carve a wholly distinctive persona of its own, but it does mean that a film largely in the grip of the same old tired cliches and tropes – though it must be stressed it is still a fun and diversionary watch that passes the time nicely, if not memorably – does come with some fresh perspective and verve of its own, lending at least some semblance of its own voice and hopefully a pleasingly different new take on the franchise in the making.