Early in Elizabeth Banks’ slick and super charismatic “Charlie’s Angels,” someone observes that the world wasn’t ready for an all-female team of elite crime-fighters when the idea was first hatched more than 40 years ago (in the form of a hit ABC drama show), which is precisely the reason why they were so effective. Men have a rather well-documented tendency to underestimate women, and these particular women were more than happy to exploit that prejudice.
However, the world has come a long way since 1976 — hell, even the two sugar-high “Charlie’s Angels” movies that McG made at the turn of the millennium already feel like they belong to another dimension — and sexism has been completely eradicated from our society forever. Just kidding! Everything is still awful. But that awfulness has never been more visible, both in the toll that it takes in real life, and in the way that pop culture is trying to right the balance. We’re a long way from gender parity behind the camera, but Rey is the new hero of “Star Wars,” Captain Marvel is the most powerful Avenger there is, and Mad Max is pretty much just a fleshy hood ornament on Furiosa’s car. In other words: Girl power isn’t quite the ambush that it used to be, and Charlie’s Angels can no longer rely on the element of surprise.
Lucky for them — and unlucky for all the henchmen they kick in the balls — writer/director/producer/co-star Banks doesn’t really need any tricks up her sleeve. While the opening few minutes of her “Angels” might suggest that audiences are in for a clumsy slice of corporate feminism (the first line is literally “I think women can do anything,” and the opening credits sequence intercuts stock footage of young girls just doing stuff around the world), the rest of this lush, funny, and sometimes lethal action-comedy wears that strength a lot more comfortably. Banks never stops leaning into that “women can do anything” spirit, but she weaves it well into the fabric of the story while also beating the likes of Jason Bourne at his own game. By the time things really get rolling, the movie doesn’t have to tell us that women kick ass, because we can see it for ourselves.
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Okay, Banks does bust out one gambit that nobody saw coming: Kristen Stewart as a killer comic lead. Known for her sullen performances and fidgety mannerisms, Stewart has always been drawn to low-status parts that contradict her persona and make it difficult to forget who you’re watching. So while her puckish and sarcastic turn as an heiress-turned-Angel might seem like a major pivot away from the likes of “Adventureland” or “Personal Shopper,” Stewart is an actress who wants to be seen, and she wears each of her latest character’s disguises with the confidence of someone who’s already spent a lifetime hiding in plain sight.
Stewart plays Sabina, a wise-cracking spy (or “security agent” or whatever the hell the Angels are supposed to be) who never sweats, takes things seriously, or misses an opportunity for a solid one-liner. When an embezzler tries to escape after being catfished into a Rio sting operation, Sabina chases him down while shouting “You swiped right — I’m your girlfriend now!” (Stewart’s exquisite deadpan is more than enough to excuse the insufferable nowness of a movie that revolves around a blockchain and uses “extra” as an adjective).
Jane (note-perfect newcomer Ella Balinska) helps Sabina ice the Brazil job, but she’s more of a cold loner than a happy-go-lucky teammate, and neither of the women are especially psyched to be partnered on a mission in Hamburg a year later. It’s Sabina’s first assignment since her old Bosley (Patrick Stewart) was rebooted into her new Bosley (Banks), and something feels off from the drop. The mission is simple enough: A brilliant young scientist named Elena (“Aladdin” star Naomi Scott) has developed a sustainable energy source that can be weaponized to fry people’s brains from anywhere on Earth (oops). Of course, her sniveling boss (Nat Faxon) wants to rush it to market anyway. Elena has bravely chosen to alert the authorities — whistleblowers are so hot right now! — and the Angels are tasked with helping to secure her data. One very choppy fight scene and a few dead bodies later, it’s clear the job might be more complicated than it seems.
From there, the two Angels and their new friend bunker down with Bosley in Berlin, where they regroup for a twisty adventure that will take them to the edge of Europe and back again as they try to figure out who stole Elena’s deadly tech. The plot isn’t especially clever or unpredictable (and it relies a bit too hard on a red herring that few viewers are liable to buy), but the story is told with enough flash and energy that it doesn’t really matter. The Angels’ dialogue is sharp — even if you can sometimes feel Banks struggling to thread the needle between the seriousness of “Mission: Impossible” and the goofiness of McG — and the characters have great chemistry; you instantly root for Elena to get her wings and become a permanent member of the team.
The rest of the cast is excellent as well, with Sam Claflin’s Zuckerberg-like start-up bro melting into an amusingly frightened man-baby by film’s end, Jonathan Tucker’s shredded but silent henchman picking up the torch that Crispin Glover left behind, and Luis Geraldo Méndez’s Saint — an Instagram healer type who aligns the Angels’ spines, blends their probiotic smoothies, and even designs their outfits — is a winsome response to every thankless secretary James Bond has ever had. The movie never finds much of a use for Noah Centino, but he sure looks like a young Mark Ruffalo, and that has to count for something.
But even the movie’s flattest moments are engagingly framed against rich European locations that make the whole thing pop off the screen. From a horse race in Turkey to a rave in rural France and — best of all — an elaborate “Thomas Crown Affair”-inspired heist in one of Germany’s sprawling corporate fortresses, each scene is touched with a rare studio luster (and “Baby Driver” cinematographer Bill Pope captures them all with a supple gloss that looks great but never gets in the way).
Banks takes her fun seriously, and her film’s biggest set pieces are stitched together with the kind of effort and ingenuity that’s often missing from modern Hollywood action movies. The fisticuffs are framed too tightly and the fights can be edited to the point of abstraction, but it’s so refreshing to see character-driven combat that makes real use of the surroundings. Whether it’s Sabina chanting “Shit! Shit! Shit!” whenever she’s on the sidelines, or Jane rigging an Istanbul rock quarry to her advantage in the middle of a shootout, “Charlie’s Angels” always remains on mission.
The film’s most self-possessed moments don’t feel like outliers so much as hints of unrealized potential. This is only Banks’ second film behind the camera (“Pitch Perfect 2” was her first), but she clearly didn’t want to lean on her comedy background as a crutch and phone in the rest; she didn’t want this to be a jokey send-up in which some bad guys get killed along the way, but rather a kick-ass action movie that also happens to be funny.
That’s a difficult needle to thread, and Banks largely manages to do it with a steady hand. Nevertheless, “Charlie’s Angels” is filled with moments that opt for something flavorless rather than risking a sour note, and the bits that break away from that — a funny meta-conversation about cultural memory comes to mind, as do the excellent closing credits — hint at the even more assured movie this could have been. Also, and more tantalizingly, at the sequel that Banks sets herself up to make next. Nobody really asked for another “Charlie’s Angels” reboot, but this one will leave you eager for more. It seems these women might still have the element of surprise on their side, after all.
Sony will release “Charlie’s Angels” in theaters on Friday, November 15.