The very first line of the shiny new Charlie’s Angels reboot, in theaters Nov. 15, is guaranteed to strike some viewers as a bit too on-the-nose. “I think women can do anything,” Kristen Stewart purrs as a close-up of her face, framed by a long blonde wig, fills the screen. Minutes later, a montage of random girls around the world just kind of doing stuff—running, karate, swinging a lasso—will tempt cynical theatergoers to leave for fear of being bombarded by treacly, shallow girl-power messaging.
Those who stick out the first 20 minutes of the film, though, will be duly rewarded. Though uneven and not especially original, Charlie’s Angels is a fast-paced, well-crafted action comedy with enough fun to overshadow the flaws. Directed by actress Elizabeth Banks, this remake of the iconic 1970s TV show (and subsequent 2000 film adaptation directed by McG) has the same central premise as the original story. Three female spies, played by Kristen Stewart, Ella Balinska, and Naomi Scott in this iteration, fight bad guys on behalf of an anonymous boss known only as Charlie. Bosley (Banks) acts as Charlie’s proxy, offering the Angels guidance and a reliable getaway car.
The plot is almost secondary, a vehicle for the Angels’ high-energy crime fighting hijinks, dipped in glitter and set to an Ariana Grande soundtrack. Basically, the three women must team up to retrieve a device called Calisto, a sustainable energy substitute with a programming glitch that conveniently makes it an untraceable lethal weapon. They are also being hunted by a tattooed assassin (Jonathan Tucker). Car chases and a dance number ensue.
It is Banks’ second attempt at directing, and it is leaps and bounds more successful than her first, although given that that first try was Pitch Perfect 2, the bar was, well, low. And it also helps that the bar for reboots was equally low, with this year bringing such critical flops to the genre Men in Black: International and Jon Favreau’s The Lion King. Comedy is clearly Banks’ comfort zone. Many of the fight sequences are edited into oblivion, resulting in scenes that are choppy to a seizure-inducing degree. A heist in the headquarters of a German tech company is more effective, as is the film’s finale. Both rely more on evenly paced tension than the sensory overload of revving engines and machine gun crossfire.
There are other weaknesses, of course. Plenty of jokes fail to land. It’s probably a half hour longer than it needs to be. And a movie about women beating up macho assholes, with a Ronda Rousey cameo to boot, does not need such overt displays of pandering as the aforementioned stock footage montage to register as feminist.
The bottom line is that Charlie’s Angels works better than it should thanks to the strong performances of its cast, particularly the three heroines for which it is named. In casting the Angels, the film went in a different direction than McG’s 2000 installment featuring major movie stars Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, and Lucy Liu. Though Kristen Stewart has an impressive resume of roles in big-budget blockbusters and indie films alike, her costars Ella Balinska and Naomi Scott are relatively unknown. Balinska, a striking, 23-year-old Londoner, is convincing as no-nonsense spy Jane. Hot off of a starring role as Jasmine in Disney’s live-action remake of Aladdin, Scott flexes formidable comedy chops as Elena, the dorky tech genius. She has the bubbly charm of a young Sarah Michelle Gellar.
But it is seeing Stewart shine in a fun, lighthearted role that alone makes Charlie’s Angels worth watching. Her character, Sabina, is an heiress-turned-convict with a quick wit, infectiously breezy attitude, and impressive wig collection. It is a rare treat to see Stewart, who is known for moodier, more serious roles, have this much fun with a movie. She provides much of the comic relief with effortless one-liners, or a well-placed “Shit, shit, shit!” muttered frantically right in the middle of the action. Her natural delivery provides a necessary balance to the more effortful attempts at laughs, like a forced line from Banks about how middle-aged women just love to unapologetically eat cheese.
If Stewart is the scene-stealing star of this movie, her bleached pixie cut comes in close second. Sabina’s cropped quasi-mullet is what Miley Cyrus was trying to do in 2013. It has that unattainable model-off-duty quality where it always looks kind of wet yet somehow not greasy. The strands that dangle over her forehead, just-so, give Johnny Depp in Cry Baby a run for his money. It is the kind of haircut that will send women to the hair salon in droves, just as Jennifer Aniston’s flippy layers did back in 1994. No, this is no longer a review of Charlie’s Angels; it is an ode to K-Stew’s enigmatic butch hairstyle.
In addition to this important hair moment, we must talk about the outfits. Costume designer Kym Barrett provides two straight hours of sparkly, neon wardrobe inspiration to rival the cultural influence of Sex and the City and the Fleabag jumpsuit. Barrett serves a bubble gum pink sequined romper, a perfectly tailored purple metallic blazer, and a silk leopard print pajama suit, to name a few. But in the interest of squashing stereotypes about the impractical sartorial choices of female action stars, there are also (very cute) white bullet-proof vests, sports bras, and knee pads.
It’s details like these that may seem minor but offer nuance that could only come from retelling a classic story through the eyes of women, for women. No real-life woman could swing through a quarry on a chain in pursuit of an assassin without the support of her trusty sports bra! Placing a woman in the director’s chair is, in this case, enough to warrant a reboot of a franchise built largely on indulging the voyeuristic male gaze. When the camera pans over Balinska, Scott, and Stewart, it is not to objectify their bodies, but to capture the take-no-prisoners intensity on their faces and revel in the joy of whatever chic disguises they’ve chosen for their latest mission.
Charlie’s Angels is clearly preoccupied with rooting itself firmly in 2019, for better (the feminism that foregrounds every scene) or worse (hollow, slang-inflected jokes about being “extra” and “swiping right.”) Yet it also hearkens back to the pre-woke days of yore when people expected nothing more from a trip to the theater than good old-fashioned entertainment. That, Banks and her Angels deliver in spades.