By Darren Franich
November 12, 2019 at 03:00 PM EST

It takes almost a whole movie for the new Charlie’s Angels to get going, so that’s one obvious issue. What bliss, really, when this reboot finally boots up. Kristen Stewart and Ella Balinska play two next-generation Angels, effective spy-trained gunpunchers with wig armories and bulletproof couture. Balinska is Jane, a former MI6 operative with sniper skills. Stewart is Sabina, who really knows how to party, and she can knock over bad guys with the motorcycle she was just riding.

They arrive for the big final-act climax at a tycoon’s soiree chalet to rescue their captured colleague Elena (Naomi Scott), a genius computer type. The Angels’ plan requires stealth and subterfuge, tussles and righteous speeches. The first thing Jane and Sabina do, though, is hit the dance floor. They’re dressed for sparkle motion, her in shimmer-purple and her in glitter-green, subtle as a disco ball shot to pieces by a machine gun firing diamonds. All the extras start choreographing alongside them, drunk on star power.

Everything before is questionable, unfortunately, balancing good intentions with mapless action meandering. Stewart’s having a blast, taking a blockbuster break from arthouse excursions. She looks like someone who just got back from a semester abroad with smuggled absinthe to share with everyone. One of the first shots holds a close-up on her saying, “I think women can do anything.” She’s talking to a mark named Johnny (Chris Pang), a wealthy crime bro. He’s hypnotized by her, and that’s the point: She captures him by literally wrapping herself around him.

NADJA KLIER/Sony

I guess that first scene is some Charlie’s Angels paradox in microcosm: Female hotness as a man-trapping weapon, the camera’s objectification as a self-aware con job. Or maybe the self-awareness is the con? I never really knew the original 1970s Charlie’s Angels TV show, though the 2000s remakes hold a special place in my heart. Those two movies were directed by McG, who could turn anything into a snarky erotic car commercial. But Drew Barrymore, Lucy Liu, and Cameron Diaz had a light touch with goofball material. The vibe was Austin Powers-y when it wasn’t just luscious trash. Everything was kind of a joke back then.

Now, even jokes are serious, and writer-director-costar-producer Elizabeth Banks works overtime to re-update the series for the era of movie mythologies and triumphal sisterhood. The Townsend Agency has become “a very well-funded non-governmental NGO.” The Angels have gone international, like the Men in Black in their terrible new movie or the Kingsmen in all their terrible movies. Previously in the canon, Bosley was one guy who helped the central trio. Now Bosley is, like, a state of mind. There are multiple Bosleys, one played by Patrick Stewart, another played by Banks herself. This universe has gotten bigger without much imagination. “Bosley 342, open Safehouse 6,” the Bosley who is Banks intones. That’s a main character and a key setting reduced to fast-food-franchise statistics — and the woman talking made this damn movie!

You can tell Banks is wedging in something personal here, reclaiming Charlie‘s for the Angels. We meet Elena in a meeting with Peter Fleming (Nat Faxon), a blowhard executive who talks over her and claims her ideas for his own dim-bulb brain. He doesn’t tell her to smile more; she hears that from security guard Ralph (David Schütter), a flirtmonster who gets quite a comeuppance. Elena will soon flee an attack on her life, but it’s clear that the Angels offer more than just protection. They’re an international sorority, even a whisper network. They’re also, when Sabina is around, a good hang. There are implications of something revolutionary: throwaway references to unwed mothers in Istanbul and cash embezzled from refugees, montages of multicultural womanhood, a quick shot of birth control pills that kinda killed me. You sense self-censorship in place, though, a constant feeling that things are being said without quite being said, and wonder if a decades-old saga about women sent on missions by a disembodied man-voice can really bend so far toward empowerment rhetoric.

This is Banks’ first time directing an action movie. There’s a heist that runs like whatever clockwork isn’t, and the fight scenes are edited to pieces. Much of the film takes place in Hamburg, where everyone is an American working for someone British. We all know that Hamburg is a splendid city, the Jewel of the Elbe, wonderful in the windy afternoons. Still, sending the Angels on a country-hopping Euro-mission turns this SoCal franchise same-y, another blockbuster trip through tax havens. Too many big movies lately are John Wicks with worse stunt work, fetishizing the bougie idea that every kind of action hero has their own global Soho House society.

On the plus side: I can’t recall the last time a blockbuster movie got so much better in its final act. And Charlie’s Angels turns looser as it trends wilder, tossing in a few lunatic twists. Kristen Stewart sounds unleashed with every line reading, teasing the whole movie toward throwaway charm. “There was a gunfight at my wedding,” she says. Wait, her friends ask, she’s married? “No, I was the better shot.” And that, my friends, is how you do backstory! Don’t get me started on the late moment when Sabina finds herself battling a bad guy in a rock crusher. “It’s about to get very crush-y in here!” she yells, sounding more intrigued than scared.

Balinska and Scott are a bit too dutiful, which you’d expect from big-breaking up-and-comers. Banks turns Bosley into a co-lead, cutting into valuable friendship-forming time for the central trio. Patrick Stewart initially seems to be doing another variation on Gruffly Poignant Elderhood, but he’s got a funky spring in his step that I missed in his sincere later X-Men work. Great job, all you Stewarts! The ending advertises a more expansive, kookier sequel. Did I mention the exploding gummy bears? This new Charlie’s Angels gets very crush-y between silly excess and striving ambition, but even the sugar is flammable. B-

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