Elizabeth Banks’ entry into the Charlie’s Angels canon has palpable reverence for all the versions that come before it, seen both in references to previous films and the original TV show but also in the way it blends action, comedy, and camp all at once. But Banks’ film also adds some more serious moments to a mostly silly world, making for a tremendous balancing act of tone, style, and story.
To me, the marker of success for an action-comedy is in not just its ability to deliver both sides of this hyphenate genre over the course of the film but also on a more micro level. Individual fight scenes should have both, and the weaving together of the two should be rhythmic. This Charlie’s Angels accomplishes that over and over again. The action scenes are exquisite, and they have little pops of humor at just the right moments.
And all three leading women have been perfectly cast. As the hyperactive and filter-less Sabina Wilson, Kristen Stewart harnesses both the swagger and humor that’s at the surface of this movie perfectly. She brings a weird physicality to the role, and some of her funniest moments aren’t actual written jokes but just her casual delivery of things or the way she moves and makes sounds, like a moment when she’s running through a party and just shouting. Naomi Scott, playing the smart but in-over-her-head scientist and Angel in waiting Elena, also understands the movie’s playful tone. And the movie makes an extremely compelling case for Ella Balinska, who plays the tough and guarded Jane, to become a huge action star. She, too, has funny moments, but she’s especially captivating in the action scenes. And her monologue during her most important fight scene at the movie’s climax, doled out between punches and shattering glass, is one of the most quotable non-joke moments in the film.
Charlie’s Angels uses all the weapons in its arsenal to craft distinct, engaging fight scenes: there’s hand-to-hand combat, there’s use of the flashy gadgets, there’s improvised use of found objects, which is always my favorite thing to see in an action movie. There are occasional guns, too, but Charlie’s Angels goes the route I wish more modern action movies would by featuring more of guns scuttling across the floor than actually firing.
It wouldn’t be a Charlie’s Angels film without delivering on the fashion front. Sabina’s cheetah print leisure set and Jane’s sparkly purple suit are knockout numbers. Even the gold collar Elena wears goes from being a symbol of her capture to a statement jewelry piece once the threat is eliminated. A choreographed dance sequence just before the movie’s climax is also perfectly in-tone for this universe.
The movie is escapist action fun, and it never takes itself too seriously, but there’s still a little more happening under all the flash. For starters, it’s the rare action film that acknowledges that people die. Casualties happen in action—and even action-comedy—all the time, but unless it’s a significant character, there’s little by way of acknowledgement let alone processing. In Charlie’s Angels, Elena has a brief but discernible reaction to harming someone. Sabina and Jane are protective of her throughout, knowing that she hasn’t seen the same things they have. It’s a rare display of emotional realism for the movie, and that continues into some of the quieter scenes that actually get at these characters’ vulnerabilities.
After all, the real central character arc at play in the movie is the relationship between Sabina and Jane. They both become aware of their own flaws and are able to acknowledge them to each other. They’re the classic comedy duo, opposites in every way, but both good at their jobs despite their different approaches. Eventually, they learn from each other and can work together. An emotional scene between them happens at the heart of the movie, just after a literal explosion, and that juxtaposition of a big action moment with their bonding is unexpected and special. Their storyline is the closest thing to a traditional romantic arc in the film, and more movies should treat friendship with as much care and detail as romance.
And I’m going to go ahead and say it: Stewart’s Sabina is absolutely queer, even if it’s mostly subtextual. For some, there won’t be enough “evidence” to declare her a queer character, and I understand that to a degree. She’s certainly not out here kissing women between fight scenes (honestly, Cameron Diaz and Demi Moore come closer to kissing in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle than any two women in this movie do), but that shouldn’t really be the sole marker of a character’s queerness. We see Sabina rather obviously check out a woman at the gym, and a lot of what she says about her past is seemingly intentionally ambiguous about her sexuality. Also, I’m not so sure Elena doesn’t have an ex-girlfriend, too, but I don’t want to give too much away.
The movie’s plot follows a straightforward action narrative with effective, if not necessarily shocking, twists and just enough tension to thrill even when you know the Angels are going to win just about every fight. But the specificity of each of these three women and the importance their relationship dynamics adds another layer to the simple but satisfying action-comedy payoff of the film. Its corny pop-feminism detracts more than it adds to the film’s landscape (seriously, what is up with that stock footage Girl Power intro?), but overall, it hits all the right buttons for its genre and for the Charlie’s Angels canon in general while still standing on its own and playing to the strengths of its three stars.