The New "Charlie's Angels" Reboot Doesn't Feel Like "Charlie's Angels," For Better and Worse: Review
If you listen closely, you can hear the sound of Hollywood execs hard at work at rebooting your favorite franchise. In an age where IP is more valuable than any movie star or original idea, everything from the past will eventually get slapped with a new coat of paint and trotted out once more for the consumption of modern audiences. This week's edition: Charlie's Angels. I'm not opposed to reboots and remakes in general, but when this reboot was announced, I couldn't help but give a vaguely melancholic shrug. It really cannot be overstated how much I loved the 2000 version and its 2003 sequel as a child. My obsession with those films led to countless viewings, a love for the original 1970s TV show, and a lifelong standom of Lucy Liu, Cameron Diaz, and my all-time fav Drew Barrymore. If Hollywood so desperately wanted to squeeze new life out of this franchise, why not do a sequel to those movies and bring back Lucy, Cameron and Drew? I would have been first in line to buy tickets to that movie, but instead we got this movie, a shiny globe-trotting reboot from Elizabeth Banks. I wasn't exactly disappointed in this movie because I wasn't expecting it to be anything more than a brand extension. It's just hard to muster much enthusiasm for something that looks and feels so different from what it was that captured my attention in the first place. My feelings about this movie are complicated for reasons that I'll explain in depth below, but to put it succinctly, I'll quote Taylor Swift and say "it isn't love, it isn't hate, it's just indifference."
In the '70s Charlie's Angels, the Angels were private detectives. In the '00s movies, they were private detectives but, confusingly, they never used that term (In one scene, Lucy Liu attempts to describe her job to her boyfriend and the best she comes up with is that she's "one third of an elite crime-fighting team backed by an anonymous billionaire"). In the 2019 version, they are spies, or, more specifically, they're "lady spies". It may have been a slow evolution, but it's a significant change. Global espionage is what this film's dealing with, a long way from Kelly and Kris posing as ice dancers to catch a murderer.
Banks' screenplay is more concerned with piling on generic spy movie tropes than it is with trying to engage with the iconography of this particular franchise. Though nods to the earlier incarnations are present, the classic theme song is only heard very briefly, no attempt is made to include Charlie's famous opening narration, and you'll have to wait until mid-credits scene to hear a "Good morning, Charlie!" When they tried to reboot Charlie's Angels for the small screen in 2011, one of the reasons I thought it didn't work was because it relocated the action from Los Angeles to Miami, where it was too removed from the sunny SoCal tone. This movie primarily takes place in Hamburg, Germany, which should tell you something about how it fits in with the rest of the franchise.
The Townsend Agency is now an international NGO that many units of Angels that each have their own Bosley (Patrick Stewart, Djimon Hounsou, and Banks herself play three of the Bosleys). It's a way to build out the world, but it's not actually all that interesting. Full Throttle makes a similar mistake in thinking that we care at all about the larger organizational structure of Charlie's Angels.
Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott and Ella Ballinska are well-cast the Angels, even if their characters are all a little bland. Stewart plays Sabina (a name is distractingly close to that of Kate Jackson's Sabrina from the original show) and it's her who impresses the most. She tosses off her dialogue with the coolness of a cartoon cat.
There are some changes that I did think worked for the better. It was high time that a woman got behind the camera of the franchise. Banks has all but done away with its more cheesecake-y tendencies. The Angels are still gorgeous women, but the camera is less leering than it was in the '70s. And Banks has found ways to incorporate female character who aren't just the primary Angels in ways that are clever and wise.
But it's when the film overtly engages with its feminism that it reveals its shortcomings. It's about the empowerment of women, but it's still just an explosion-filled action flick. There are overtures made to the existence of a global network of sisterhood or something, and it's all well and good, but it's so surface-level. It's like having Jasmine in the 2019 remake of Aladdin (where she was played by Naomi Scott) sing a stupid power ballad about how she won't be speechless - feminism that's marketable to the masses. Don't these studios know that 2019 audiences can smell this kind of corporate cynicism a mile away?
Speaking of 2019 audiences, what was up with all the guns? There are so many guns in this movie, which is an odd choice since the '00s Angels made a point of saying that they didn't use them. The gun discourse in the US has evolved so much since then that bringing back those weapons now makes it feel out of touch. Maybe I'm overthinking this. After all, the single most iconic image of this franchise is the silhouettes of the Angels holding guns.
The action scenes, in general, are fine, if that's important to you (No gravity-defying fight choreography this time around). The second half of the movie is much tighter and more enjoyable than the messy first half. And there a couple of moments of genuine humor, and one or two things that might make Charlie's Angels superfans happy. So, if you're reading this wondering if you should see the movie, I'd say it's worth your time.
But it raises an interesting question about what happens when a franchise you once loved gets rebooted past the point of caring. This is the third time Charlie's Angels has been rebooted in less than twenty years. How much can the brand be stretched until it stops being Charlie's Angels? And when it reaches that point, when its only fans have never even heard of Farrah Fawcett, what then? When a society recycles its cultural output so often and so freely, what, if anything, has lasting value?