CHARLIE'S ANGELS (2019) -- Grade: D
Updated: Nov 19, 2019
Full disclosure: I’ve been a full-fledged Charlie's Angels stan since Day One. And I'm talking in 1976, when I was a preteen girl who was thrilled to finally see kick-ass, independent women on TV. I've got a massive memorabilia collection, an Angels blog on tumblr (Chuck’s Cherubs) and a fierce sense of protection for the brand itself.
The Angels taught me that I could be strong, smart, independent, make a good living, stay single, childless and own my own adorable mid-century cottage or rustic beach house. The show also reinforced some things I already knew, that female friendships were important and worth celebrating.
When the movie versions came along in ‘00, I was cautiously optimistic, but skeptical of their ability to capture the magic of the originals. But the hell if producer-star Drew Barrymore didn’t pull it off, and add her own spin too. The chemistry between Drew, her longtime friend Cameron Diaz and the adorable ass-kicker known as Lucy Liu was perfect, and you might not recall, but at the turn of the 21st century, cinema had some new technology and toys -- The Matrix was slowing down bullets and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was sending female fighters soaring through the trees.
Director McG managed to combine all these elements into a literally high-flying action comedy that found the trio as smart, capable and even more bad-ass than before. It also acknowledged the series that came before it a hilarious homage to the original opening sequence, with the Angels undercover in the army, on skateboards and in chains.
No surprise, it was a huge hit. I loved it. And I loved the sequel, which added Demi Moore as an Angel-turned-villain even more. So now, after yet another failed TV reboot in 2011 comes the latest iteration.
Naturally, again, there were both high hopes and deep doubts going into this latest reboot. Another O.G. Angels fan, the actress Elizabeth Banks, would be directing, re-writing and starring in the 2019 “continuation” of the series and supposedly giving it a modern, feminist attitude. But although Banks always gave the TV series its cultural props in her multitude of media interviews (more than 30 at last count), she ultimately left the impression that the ‘00 Angels were somehow problematic. Instead, she said she would be “grounding” her film in reality and doing everything in her power to leave those “kitschy and winky and campy” movies behind -- except when blatantly ripping them off (more on that in a minute).
What began to emerge from Banks, Stewart (who promised a “woke” version) and others in the media who dumped on the McG movies was the false narrative that somehow the ‘00 Angels should be culturally canceled because they were overly sexualized, subjecting them to the male gaze.
But this misses the entire point -- the Angels have always been subversive and cool because they are fully aware of their sexuality and consciously weaponize it against the bad guys. The Angels are always in control and comfortable in their own bodies (and underoos) and their “sexist” disguises (dumb blonde, dominatrix, club dancer).
That's because these character tropes render them invisible or prove distracting enough to enable them to accomplish their mission. (They also seem to have much of the same effect on male audiences, which kinda proves what we're saying.)
So Banks seemed to imply that instead, her movie would be all modern, professional, grown-up girl power all the time, from the costumes to the stunts to the story. In execution, though, she doesn’t even come close.
In the very first scene of Charlie’s Angels 2019, we meet Kristen Stewart’s Sabina (a really dumb nod to the original Angel name “Sabrina”). She’s all dolled up, flirting with a male villain and telling him how she’s all “Miss Independent,” and women can do anything men can do and yada yada -- while she’s making goo-goo eyes at him and SUCKING ON HIS FINGER. So the dialog is apparently supposed to negate/subvert what we’re seeing on screen. Yeah, no.
Then Ella Balinska’s Jane enters, the fighting breaks out, and there’s nothing interesting or exciting or different or empowering about it. There are better choreographed action sequences on a CBS procedural. Sorry, Banksy, since your only prior credit was Pitch Perfect 2, you just don't have the chops for this yet.
Ok, time out to set up the concept -- the Angels are now an international all-female spy group for hire (except for a bunch of male handlers, aka Bosleys), still overseen by the voice-only Charlie. Their next case comes to them by way of Elena (Naomi Scott), a tech genius/whistleblower whose big invention is being weaponized, leaving her in need of Angelic aid. An expression-less tattooed dude tries to kill her, but she’s saved by Jane, a car chase and a very big fake-looking gun. Alas, the rescue goes wrong, and it leads to one of the only beats of feminist reality we’ll get from this big, splashy studio release -- a heartfelt hug that Bosley (Elizabeth Banks) delivers to Jane, who denies she needs one. Yes, professional women should be allowed to show emotion. This is good.
What isn’t good are the comments Banks as Bosley makes to Elena about her makeup and wardrobe (yellow’s not the color for her apparently) and the big deal made out of the Angels’ giant closet -- so we’re independent women, but I mean, we still need a lot of cool clothes and jewelry and stuff. And some big phallic guns.
Barrymore made the conscious decision that the '00 Angels would only use their smarts, tech, and kick-ass kung fu against the bad guys ... which seems even more relevant now. So that's another strike against the '19 crew.
Really, all we get are faux shout-outs to feminism, like a ham-fisted side plot about delivering tampons (I kid you not) to a female doctor in the Turkish underground.
Plus, these particular Angels are really, really bad at their jobs. They screw up a bunch of times, they miss shots and reveal their location, they’re always dropping stuff, and they even manage to kill some peripheral characters, with barely a shoulder shrug. The ‘00 Angels were pros, baby. They did NOT make mistakes. They did NOT get caught while sneaking around. They did NOT diddle around in giant closets. And they would’ve put together who the bad guy was long before these three did.
And speaking of the O.G. Angels, my other major issue here is that Banks copies whole sequences from the prior movie series. (Spoilers ahead:) Remember the #FullThrottle scene at the Coal Bowl where the Angels were looking all tough and motocross racing at a rock quarry in brightly-colored racing suits? Well, this version has both a fight at a rock quarry AND an Angel in a colorful racing costume.
And there's yet more: A giant explosion destroying the Townsend Agency office? Check! Escaping on the skid of a helicopter? Check! Surprise cameo by an original TV Angel? Yep! Though Full Throttle at least gave said Angel an entire scene instead of three lines...
And that whole iconic sequence when the Angels break into the bad guy’s company, where Lucy Liu strides down the hall to “Barracuda” and delivers a hilarious Marxist tirade while Dylan and Nat don male disguises to get into the vault? We get a pale imitation of that here, where the women don identical costumes and wigs to sneak into a corporate office building and get into a safe. But unlike the originals, these chicks can’t even get this right and end up putting several bystanders in serious jeopardy. (But it does give Jane a chance to do the patented Lucy Liu hair flip, first established by Jaclyn Smith in the series. It, too, pales in comparison.)
Worse, the promise that the Angels would only be appearing as serious crimefighters instead of sex objects is undermined by the appearance of Sabina and Jane appearing in heavy makeup and sparkly sequin dresses to perform a choreographed dance (which they learned where in this supposedly realistic situation?) that poorly resembles Full Throttle’s Pussycat Dolls number.
And to top it all off, the bad guys (who honestly, I had trouble telling apart) actually put a gold S&M collar and chain on their prisoner Elena. Seriously?
The movie also commits the cardinal sin of photoshopping Patrick Stewart’s face over David Doyle and Bill Murray’s Bosleys, and then having him proclaim that he was the one who found and trained all the Angels. Uh, no. That would’ve been CHARLIE, as in Charlie’s Angels. And this is the only "cameo" most of the Angels get to make. (It's been reported that Barrymore, Diaz and Liu were approached about appearing, but wisely took a pass.)
The '19 Angels themselves and the actresses who play them are fine, but forgettable -- which is another major problem. Word on the street is that when the original script (with drafts by three or four MEN) went out to potential stars like Lupita Nyongo, they wanted nothing to do with it, leaving Sony to cobble together this inexperienced group. Casting is everything in Charlie's Angels, and Sony has now learned a hard lesson. Liu, Diaz, Barrymore were well-known and experienced when they took on these roles. You just can't cast unknowns as Angels and expect to get any box office out of it.
Charlie’s Angels has also always depended on chemistry. I was pretty surprised to hear Stewart, Balinska and Scott say on Jimmy Kimmel that they didn’t meet until their first day on the set. Angels ‘00 went through many a chemistry test before they finalized their cast, which clicked like butter. Like, c’mon, Banks, you couldn’t have hosted a dinner beforehand for them to meet? Cause you might’ve then realized that you were going to have major issues trying to get Amazonian Balinska into the same frame with Scott and Stewart.
Now, having said all that, I do highly recommend the scenes that accompany the credits. Elena goes through Angels training in a montage packed with short comedy bits and fun cameos -- which should've opened the movie -- and in which the current Charlie is revealed to be (MAJOR SPOILER) none other than Miss Kelly Garrett. That there is a home run. If only the entire film had been that clever and “woke.”
Elizabeth Banks tweeted today: "Well, if you’re going to have a flop, make sure your name is on it at least 4x. I’m proud of #CharliesAngels and happy it’s in the world." And good on her for that, and for taking her shot. She just shoulda talked to an expert first.