There are no spy film franchises that have female leads. Sure, we all love Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust in the Mission: Impossible series, but that is still the Tom Cruise show through and through. With men, there’s the aforementioned Mission series, Bond, Bourne, Jack Ryan, Kingsman, and even Austin Powers. With women, you have potential franchise starters that didn’t go anywhere (Atomic Blonde and Salt), cold and divisive one-offs (Haywire and Red Sparrow), and comedies about how wacky it could be to have a female spy (Spy and The Spy Who Dumped Me). There is a female co-lead of the Spy Kids series, but I doubt many would want to hold that up as great, serious moviegoing.
The one name that seemingly endures with time in regards to female spies is Charlie’s Angels, which started as a TV series in 1976 and had two financially successful films in the early 2000s directed by the always hilariously named McG. The series and the films have received much praise for their kick-ass trio of leads but also have received just as much pushback for their hyper-sexualization or the leads and dynamic of taking orders from a man they never see. Some chalk the sexualization up to feminine empowerment to be able to enjoy the characters. Some see the embrace of them as merely a lack of options to choose from in the female spy arena. But almost no matter which way you see it, you can always tell that the show and films were definitely created by men.
Here we are in 2019, a time of intellectual property ruling the multiplexes and gender equality in constant conversation in the entertainment industry. It was bound to happen we would get a new look at Charlie’s Angels with a woman behind the camera. In a bit of a surprising move though, the woman bringing it to us is Elizabeth Banks, coming off of her directorial debut Pitch Perfect 2, a film I did not care for in the slightest. She cast a trio of interesting performers as the Angels. First up is Kristen Stewart, who as of late has stepped about as far away from mainstream Hollywood fare as you can get and does not carry any sense of traditional movie star with her. Then you have rising star Naomi Scott, who earlier this year gave a pretty good performance with a horribly written character as Jasmine in the remake of Disney’s Aladdin. Lastly, you have Ella Balinska who will be a new face to most of the people watching the movie, as she was to me. As a big fan of the spy genre, I went in hoping to deliver the start of maybe the first great female spy series.
Alas, what Banks and company delivered is more of a very mixed bag. Charlie’s Angels certainly has its merits, chiefly Kristen Stewart’s performance, but the plotting is so messy and the action often incomprehensible that the visceral pleasures one gets from a spy action film are not really there. I do see it as an improvement over the show and the previous two films, but that is more damning with faint praise than anything else.
Naomi Scott is ostensibly our lead here as Elena, a scientist developing a clean energy source. When she brings to her boss (Nat Faxon) that the product is not ready for use and has the potential to cause serious damage to people, he dismisses her concerns and is ready to launch. But he is also ready to sell it onto the black market. Enter: Sabina (Stewart) and Jane (Balinska), as two Angels who had a bit of a tiff on a previous mission a year prior, and several Bosleys, which instead of being a person is now a rank in the Townsend Agency. Banks serves as our primary Bosley, but we also get time with Djimon Hounsou and Patrick Stewart, playing the first Bosley who is entering retirement. The Angels esentially recruit Elena to join them on the mission in order to recover the stolen energy source and find the mole inside the Townsend Agency who is involved.
Our leads do not lack charm in the slightest. While Kristen Stewart has been off making her excellent independent films for the last several years, we rarely get to see her play a character with such a light touch and filled with so much joy and humor. No, not every one-liner of hers lands, but she has a pretty good batting average there, and none of the groaners are on her but on the script. Balinska is a very striking screen presence and handles the physicality of being a spy exceptionally well. Scott is plucky, but she is saddled a bit with being dragged along instead of actively moving forward. The three do have really good chemistry with one another, and if they did end up making another film, I would gladly watch the three of them again.
I just hope that if that film is made it is with a different creative team. Elizabeth Banks has almost no eye for action filmmaking. There is a hand-to-hand/gun fight inside a café that is one of the most baffling action set pieces I have seen in a long time. Car chases have no sense of flow or direction. There is a decent set piece involving a lot of rocks that has its moments, but its spacial dynamics do become awfully muddled sometimes. This does have the structure of so many spy films before it where really scenes are more of an excuse to get to the next set piece, but when the set pieces are not interesting, you lose a lot of steam in those plottier bits. The humor is a tad more consistent than the storytelling, but even that lacks some polish, a bit of a surprise as Banks tends to be a very funny person.
The film does fix the one big issue of its predecessors: these women are not over-sexualized. Yes, they are gorgeous women, but we never really ogle them. No one is dancing in their underwear in front of a mirror. And Banks does this without stripping them of their femininity, which is a mistake so many make. They also get to show a range of what a feminine look can be. These are not women trying to be men. They are women being women. And sure, there are quite a few really pandering moments, though nothing on the egregious level of the use of No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” in Captain Marvel. But who cares, really. You may roll your eyes. You may do a little fist pump. Your mileage may vary.
I wish I could tell you this is great. This shows great potential for future films if the kinks get worked out. As it stands, 2019’s Charlie’s Angels has to live with just being fine. Some good, some bad, rather unremarkable. It’s a tough place for a movie to be, especially since I am sure this film will have to deal with an army of bad faith online dissenters who won’t see the film based on the fact it stars women. So, I hope it is successful so we can get another crack at this and maybe get something great. Or even get studios to green light other potential female spy series, which even then would require so much arm-wringing to get done. This is close but misses the mark.
Categories: New Releases