November 29, 2019
1 Hr., 59 Mins.
haka Khan is on the red carpet for Variety’s Power of Women luncheon and has just been asked about her contribution to the Charlie’s Angels (2019) soundtrack, which was put together by Ariana Grande ahead of the film’s release. She’s honest, but with her honesty comes the unveiling of an insult. “It’s a cute song,” Khan says of her offering. Then she slyly smiles. “It’s a song, y’know, about Charlie’s angels. It’s, y’know,
it’s... it’s not gonna change the world, OK?”
I thought about Khan’s comments when subsequently watching Charlie’s Angels, and not just when her song came on. This movie, like the track to which Khan has provided her still-honeyed voice, is adequate and not much more. “Cute” is a decent descriptor, but since it sounds condescending I’ll avoid it. Nonetheless, on the Sunday morning I watched the movie, having adequate fun before running the afternoon’s errands was perfectly fine by me — a nice way to start the day, even.
Written and directed by the actress turned filmmaker Elizabeth Banks, who also stars in the movie as go-to sideperson Bosley, Charlie's Angels isn’t a reboot of the namesake show or 2000 movie but a sequel. In its universe, the 1970s, Aaron Spelling-backed TV series and the lovable aughts remodel are just part of history, as evinced by a hurriedly doctored-up photo montage shown early on. (The little talked-about, failed ABC revamp in the 2010s doesn’t exist here.) The eponymous crime-fighters in this iteration, like in this movie’s forebears, are an odd throuple. Brought together here are the unsmiling former MI-6 agent Jane (Ella Balinska), audacious ex-rebel heiress Sabina (Kristen Stewart), and new recruit Elena (Naomi Scott), a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed scientist.
The latter character, who begins the film as a civilian, leads us into the narrative. For months, she’s been working with a multi-billion-dollar corporation on a new technology called Calisto, an energy conservation device. When properly harnessed, it’s a breakthrough in sustainable engineering. But if the nascent tool isn't rejiggered soon, it could be weaponized if to get into the wrong hands. Elena realizes as the film opens that higher-ups at her company in fact possess those wrong hands, and that the potential is high that they’re thinking about selling Calisto on the black market. This set-up, which sounds characteristic of the procedural-style TV show, inevitably also unspools like one. The angels are inexorably tasked with saving the world, with their meet-ups and breakthroughs punctuated by high-octane action sequences. At first, Jane and Sabina arrive to help save the day; then Elena joins their ranks.
This version of Charlie’s Angels is by far the most straight-faced of the franchise’s incarnations. Gone is the detective-show-with-a-side-of-ogling ethos of the series that started it all; gone is the cartoonish, almost-manic chutzpah of the 2000s movies. Charlie’s Angels of 2019, though still good-humored and often funny, is bristled with the slick and noisy action recognizable to anyone who’s seen a big-budgeted thriller in the last five years. The film is too long at two hours — its narrative is so threadbare that all the tries to make the movie go on for the length of a feature wind up making it feel unbecomingly repetitive.
The key reason the earlier variations on the Charlie’s Angels formula have worked has in large part had to do with the chemistry between the leads. That’s fortunately what keeps us invested in the 2019 update. Stewart, Scott, and newcomer Balinska make sense together as complementary colleagues, and have a rapport that suggests even when they’re not explicitly hanging out they’re also buddies. (It also helps, I think, to watch a couple of promotional interviews with the cast: they genuinely seem to like being around each other.)
This sequel’s bound to go in one ear and out the other. And it’s unlikely that audiences will return to it in the same way they have 2000’s Charlie’s Angels, which has been dependably rerun on television with such repetition that I, like many, became sort of obsessed with its mania a few years ago. But the new movie goes down well in a miserable and cold fall, helped by the way it’s better than many people including myself thought it’d be. Turns out it’s arguably not just a spell of corporate feminism rendered suspenseful and sparkly. (The opening credits are an exception to this, however: they’re a klutzy compilation of girls proving they can do anything.) To paraphrase Khan, 2019’s Charlie’s Angels isn’t going to change the world. But oftentimes lightweight movies like it make it a little more bearable for a few hours. On a lazy Sunday, that was enough for me. B