The new Charlie's Angels makes its familiar point for the first of several times right at the beginning, when we see badass Angel Sabina Wilson (badass Kristen Stewart) strangulating some intercontinental creep with a curtain. Pausing to point out the obvious to this guy, Sabina says, "I think women can do anything…I want all my options available so I can decide for myself." There follows a montage of feisty females around the world doing whatever they damn well please. Depending on your trash-cinema tastes and your gender decisions, you will find this either "empowering"—in the old "go girl!" way—or eye-rollingly banal.
This is not a terrible movie; it's just not a terribly good one. The three Angels at the center of the action—Stewart's neo-punky Sabina, Ella Balinska's sleek-but-lethal Jane, and Naomi Scott's brainiac hacker Elena (actually a sort of Angel-in-waiting)—are a personable trio, not without chemistry. But the action itself—a blur of predictable kicks, throws and headbutts laced with bursts of gunfire—is a hyper-choppy mess. (Director Elizabeth Banks, who also wrote the script and plays one of the main characters, might not be a natural action filmmaker; she does, however, have a distinctive feeling for the rhythms of female friendship.)
The plot is what you'd expect. Once upon a time, back in 1976, when the original Charlie's Angels burst onto network TV for a five-season run, the Angels were three model-esque women with fabulous hair and bouncy body parts employed as investigators at an LA detective agency run by a mysterious character named Charlie Townsend, who delivered case instructions to the girls and their overseer, John Bosley, via speakerphone. This basic setup was continued 20 years later in a pair of feature films that introduced a new generation of Angels played by Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu. Now, in this latest iteration, the Townsend Agency has gone international, with squads of Angels stationed all over the globe and many Bosleys, too (the name has become a rank). Banks is one of these Bosleys (she's a sort of Angels den mother), and twinkly Patrick Stewart is another (he's retiring, but don't count him out). There's also a turncoat agent, which complicates things usefully.
The Angels' latest case gets underway in Hamburg, where tech developer Elena has come up with a MacGuffin called Calisto, a dingus that can do various cool things but can also be used as an assassination device. Elena wants her smarmy boss (Nat Faxon) to give her time to iron out the lethal kinks in this product, but he wants to market it right away. Alarmed, Elena seeks help from the local Bosley (Djimon Hounsou) at a café where Jane is working undercover. Soon they're all being chased through the streets of the city by a tattooed assassin called Hodak (Jonathan Tucker), in a sequence that adds nothing fresh to the annals of car-chase uproar. In the aftermath of this pursuit, Banks's Bosley pulls up. Seeing that the Angels are a little freaked out about having almost died, she says, "Hugs work"—a phrase heretofore unheard in the halls of badassery.
Director Banks constructs a series of ambitious set-piece scenes, some not bad, some not especially good. There's a sequence in which the three Angels infiltrate a research facility in identical wigs and lab coats (they drive bad guys batty trying to track the women on surveillance cameras) which is pretty cute, even if it goes on too long. More fun is a big dance bash in the French Alps—an elaborate glitz-wallow set to a remix of Donna Summer's "Bad Girls"—which appears to exist solely to allow Stewart and Balinska to look great in glittery little party dresses. And hey, why not—aspirational glamour is an important part of the Angels DNA.
It's hard to imagine this movie existing without Kristen Stewart, who brings a charismatic bratty energy to her scenes (and a smidge of girl-girl flirtation, too). She can't carry the whole picture, though, and the movie's slightly dated feminist cheerleading sometimes becomes an annoyance. One nicely conceived scene, set in Istanbul and drawn from the real world, involves a bombed-out clinic for unwed mothers and a van full of tampons and birth control pills that's being donated to it by the Angels. But then we also have a sneering bad guy saying to Banks's Bosley, "You're outmanned—you always have been." And later we're informed that among the many Angels who have passed through the Townsend Agency, one was…I don't want to spoil anything here, but…let's say a notorious American jurist.
I hope the sequel, should there be one, is a little bit better than this movie.