Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 25, 2020)
Back in 1976, its mix of sexy ladies and crime-solving action made Charlie’s Angels a hit TV series and a pop culture sensation. After the show left the air in 1981, the franchise remained dormant until 2000’s cinematic reboot, a success that brought the Angels to a new generation.
Though 2003’s sequel film did almost as well at the box office as its predecessor, the series once again went quiet until 2011’s disastrous TV reboot. Due to abysmal ratings, this series got canceled after only four episodes aired.
Despite this checkered history, Sony launched another reboot in 2019, this time via another big-screen effort. Alas, it fared no better than the 2011 TV series, as 2019’s Charlie’s Angels bombed at the box office.
Will the 2019 film’s commercial failure portend the end of the series? Probably not, though maybe it should, as the new Angels shows a major disconnect between the ethos of the original series, the 2000 movie and present-day standards.
Run by Charles Townsend, the Townsend Agency operates teams of female agents worldwide, and it refers to them as “Angels”. Each squad works under the tutelage of supervisors all known simply as “Bosley”.
When the original Bosley (Patrick Stewart) retires, a new Bosley (Elizabeth Banks) takes his place, and she shepherds a team that includes Sabina Wilson (Kristen Stewart) and Jane Kano (Ella Balinska). They find out that the employees under tech magnate Alexander Brock (Sam Claflin) might be up to no good.
When these technicians invent “Calisto”, a miraculous energy-generating device, engineer Elena Houghlin (Naomi Scott) discovers that its qualities can induce potentially fatal side effects. She attempts to notify Brock of this defect but finds herself cut off by other staff.
As it happens, nefarious parties want to market Calisto as an untraceable way to commit assassinations, and they go in search of the highest bidder. With Elena as a new recruit, Angels Sabina and Jane attempt to track down the device and stop these plans.
Got that? Good, now throw my plot synopsis out the window, as none of what I said makes one iota of difference.
Film nerds love to trot out references to MacGuffins, story devices that motivate action but remain inherently meaningless. Calisto belongs in the MacGuffin Hall of Fame, as it provides one of the least compelling plot-movers in cinematic history.
That said, maybe Calisto itself doesn’t become any more useless than other MacGuffins, but I find it problematic because it connects to a poorly-told narrative. When I watched Angels theatrically, about halfway through the film, I asked my friend if the movie actually had a story.
She couldn’t find a real plot here either, so she responded in the negative. Oh, Angels comes with story-like elements, but it mish-mashes them into such an incoherent soup that only confusion results.
Which seems bizarre, as the basic narrative really remains simple at its core. Bad guys have deadly device and good guys want to stop them – bingo bango, sugar in the gas tank. That’s worked for umpteen Bond movies and it seems like a serviceable arc.
So why can’t Banks make it work? In addition to her role as Bosley, Banks both wrote and directed Angels, a fact that puts its failure firmly at her feet.
Banks came into Angels with one feature-length directorial credit: 2015’s Pitch Perfect 2. Why did Sony think the director of a light comedy would seem appropriate for a big action extravaganza like this?
I don’t know, but Banks proves wholly insufficient to meet the franchise’s particular needs. Circa 2019, the Angels series finds itself in a tough spot, as the current social climate won’t really allow it to follow the paths its successful predecessors took.
The 1970s series’ emphasis on the “jiggle factor” clearly won’t play today. The campy comedy of the 2000 movie stands a better chance, but even though it went tongue in cheek, I think it’d be tough to pull off its objectified nature.
In the “MeToo” era, a light romp about sexy female agents becomes more difficult to achieve, and the 2019 film takes itself way too seriously. Oh, it comes with some comedy, but it rarely feels willing to poke fun at itself, and that becomes a crucial flaw.
No, the 2019 Angels doesn’t need to self-mock to the degree of the 2000 film, but face it: the franchise offers so much ludicrous material that a light approach fares best. The 2019 film feels like it wants to compete with more straightforward action flicks, and it doesn’t work.
Not to pile on, but Banks really seems like the wrong choice to lead the movie. She shows no connection at all to the action scenes, which uniformly come across as poorly shot and generally incoherent.
Lots of battles occur, but it’s damned hard to tell what’s happening in any of them. Banks can’t stage these with the needed urgency or thrills, so they turn into confusing and dull exercises.
Except maybe for Stewart, none of the actors rise to the occasion either. Angels comes light on star power, and none of our leads compensate with good performances.
Wherever Stewart’s talents lie, they’re not in the comedic realm. Sabina should be the wildest, funniest Angel, and the script hands Stewart a mix of potentially amusing lines, but her tone-deaf delivery crushes any potential.
As for Balinska and Scott… well, they’re pretty. Neither seems awful in their roles, but neither does much with the parts, either. They provide lackluster stabs at their underwritten characters and that’s about it.
Back in 2000, that Angels managed to make the series work for a new audience. 2019’s film can’t generate the same kind of charm, so it ends up as a confusing, dull, and witless experience.
Footnote: Elena’s training shows up at the start of the end credits, and we get another tag scene midway through those credits. Nothing else appears after that.