Charlie’s Angels review: does Kristen Stewart’s girl power film sink or soar?

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Directed by Elizabeth Banks and starring the Twilight actor alongside Naomi Scott and Ella Balinska, this all-female action film comes with high expectations. Stylist reviews the movie to find out whether it missed the mark. 

This is what you need to know: I am a huge fan of the 2000 Charlie’s Angels film.

How could I not be? It dropped right in the middle of my pre-teen years, a PG-rated movie that I could reasonably see on my own with friends. In fact, it was the first film I ever saw without a parental escort, so perhaps that is what you need to know. 

No wonder I adored it. I wanted to dive into its glossy world and swim around for the entirety of its one hour, 38 minute duration. (Remember when movies were almost always a brisk, sub-two hours? I miss those days.) I left the cinema on a high of Destiny’s Child and ombré aviators with diamante love hearts in the corner. I begged my parents to buy me a one-shouldered, ruched top. What? It was the ‘00s.

All of which to explain that, yes, I sank into my seat to watch the 2019 Charlie’s Angels reboot, directed by Elizabeth Banks from a script that she penned herself, in a cloud of cynicism. What possible energy could Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott and Ella Balinska bring to this franchise that I didn’t already get from Lucy Liu, my girl Drew and Cameron D? A few things, it turns out.

Charlie's Angels review: what can audiences get from this trio in 2019 that we couldn't get in 2000? A few things, it turns out.

This is not to say that the Charlie’s Angels reboot is fantastic, because it has a few issues. But compelling, enjoyable filmmaking? Yes, at times. What Banks’ film does best, though, is lean so far into the inherent campness of the franchise that the movie is essentially horizontal. There’s a wink and a knowing grin and a nudge-nudge to the whole enterprise that is so thrilling to watch. And that’s all thanks to Stewart.

The Twilight star plays Sabina, the shambolic angel who is always either eating something (“Do you want a sandwich?” she asks her no-nonsense partner-in-crime-stopping Jane (Balinska), in a pivotal moment of action, “it’s tuna. Unless it’s cheese, and it’s just really bad,”) or stealing something from someone. 

She’s a gorgeous, wise-cracking, unapologetically queer secret agent with some chaotic Brad Pitt in Ocean’s Eleven energy. Does Stewart have ambitions to become an action star, à la Charlize Theron or Gal Gadot? She should. Charlie’s Angels serves as one long, two-hour audition tape for Stewart to get a standalone Poison Ivy origins film in the manner of Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker. I would – and I cannot stress this enough – die for her.

Smartly, Banks knows what side her bread is buttered on, and she has built the movie around Stewart’s Sabina. It is she who opens the film, staring directly down the camera as she says “I think women can do anything”, a quasi thesis for the movie. (What follows is a montage of stock footage of girls doing stuff, which feels both shoe-horned in and aggressively focus-grouped at the same time.) 

Charlie's Angels review: the movie is worth seeing for Kristen Stewart's performance alone.

Sabina is the lynchpin of the outfit, the original angel who is asked to work with Jane when she is drafted in from MI6 after a job gone wrong. The pair pick up Elena (Naomi Scott, the actor formerly known as Princess Jasmine in Aladdin) along the way, a whistleblower for a tech company building an energy source with a dangerous blindspot should it fall into the wrong hands, as these sorts of things are so often wont to do. Somewhere in here, you have Sam Claflin as a hoodie-wearing tech bro, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before’s breakout star Noah Centineo as – and here you must really suspend disbelief – Elena’s fellow programmer, and Banks, Djimon Hounsou and Patrick Stewart as a network of Bosleys lifting the Angels up. 

The plot in this film is almost entirely Macguffin; it’s Macguffin stuffed inside Macguffin stuffed inside another Macguffin, like some kind of Macguffin turducken. And yet, whenever Stewart is onscreen, my quibbles about plotholes and inconsistencies fade away. Stewart is having so much fun in this film, and you absolutely love to see it. 

She takes part in an elaborate dance sequence, she athletically spars with maybe-bad-guy Johnny (Crazy Rich Asians’ Chris Pang), she equips herself well in all her action sequences and she flirts with every woman who comes across her path, including her colleagues Jane and Elena. “What is it you do on the weekend?” Sabina asks Jane, after the completion of their first job. “Cosplay Catwoman? I’d actually pay to see that.” In response, Jane pushes her off a building – after she checks that she’s been harnessed up first.

This is Banks’ second film as a director – her first was Pitch Perfect 2 – and it shows in the action sequences which, on occasion, feel a little sluggish. But Banks fares better as a screenwriter, punching up the film with jokes about the plight of modern womanhood. Like the fact that the Angels’ Berlin safehouse is fully stocked with cheese and wine at all times. “All women are starving, all the time,” Banks’ Bosley intones, like a mantra. “I need cheese. It’s code for: I’m 40 and I’m single and I have a cheese-shaped hole that needs to be filled.” 

Charlie's Angels review: is the feminist action film worth seeing?

Is the movie – and here you must forgive me but I laid the ramp for the joke and I must leap off it – cheesy? Yes, at times. 

The worst moments in the film are when the movie desperately throws its fists in the air in an approximation of the girl power energy that radiated effortlessly from the 2000 iteration. (Problematic though that movie might have been, with its depressingly male gaze, it still boasted a strong anti-gun stance courtesy of producer and star Drew Barrymore.) I’m talking about that opening sequence of girls ‘doing things’, such as playing badminton or reading book. Or when the movie intimates that, um, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an Angel. Or the entire back 20 minutes of the film, which resolves the turducken-Macguffin in a ‘gotcha’ kind of way.

But in small doses there’s something thrilling about the film’s slogan T-shirt brand of girl power, even if it is – fine – a little bit cheesy. Remember, this is a movie that passes the Bechdel test because of the sheer number of conversations that happen within it that are about things like electromagnetic weaponry and what Elena calls the business of “lady spies”.

If you have a problem with that, well, Charlie’s Angels was never going to be your franchise, was it? Luckily for me, it’s mine. And Kristen Stewart is my Angel. 

Images: Sony

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Hannah-Rose Yee

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer based in London. You can find her on the internet talking about movies, television and Chris Pine.

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