Charlie’s Angels is as generic as they come

Elizabeth Banks reboots Charlie’s Angels with the best of intentions, but the result is assembly-line action blockbuster from top to bottom.

I don’t think there’s a single original idea in all of Charlie’s Angels. “But of course not,” you’ll tell me. “It’s a remake of a remake of a ’70s television show — how could it be original?” What I mean is not that the premise is familiar — what I mean is that everything in it, from the premises to the costumes to the jokes to the action scenes, are all minor variants on things that are already known to be successful. Beneath its surface goal of delivering 2019-friendly girl power (which I actually believe to be genuine, unlike much of the rest of the film), Charlie’s Angels is a crash course in delivering surface-level commercial filmmaking by the standards of 2019. 

You could argue that large swaths of commercial cinema work along the same lines: make a movie that is recognizable as a movie containing the things that everyone in the world agrees should be in a movie and the rest is gravy. I suppose, in that sense, to assume that Charlie’s Angels would be a film with a defined personality might be asking for a lot… but then again, McG’s 2000 iteration actually is a film with a personality. Granted, that personality is an over-caffeinated early 2000s Korn-tinged cotton-candy nightmare… but at least that’s something.

The worst part is that, by all accounts, this Charlie’s Angels was something that director Elizabeth Banks felt strongly enough about to want to do, rather than a project she accepted dispassionately. I know that Charlie’s Angels has at least some good intentions at the heart of it, but so much of it is so interchangeably generic that I think you could insert entire pages of its script into Hobbs & Shaw without anyone noticing. Positive female role models in action movies are one thing; it’d be nice if they were in something with at least a little bit of personality and torque, though, right?

Sabina Wilson (Kristen Stewart) and Jane Kano (Ella Balinska) work for the Townsend Agency, an elite worldwide organization of special agents who intervene when… well, anyway, they’re special agents. The Townsend agency is made up of several Bosleys (which is described as a rank within the organization similar to a lieutenant), and Sabina and Jane wind up working under a Bosley played by Elizabeth Banks when the oldest Bosley, played by Patrick Stewart, retires. In any case, they come across the path of Elena Houghlin (Naomi Scott), a systems engineer who has designed an advanced Google Home-type of doohickey for a large corporation run by a British douchebag (Sam Claflin). Elena knows that the doohickey has a flaw that could be weaponized if it falls into the wrong hands, but her douchey superior (Nat Faxon) just wants to move forward with it so he can cash in. An assassination is attempted on Elena by a silent henchman (Jonathan Tucker), after which she falls in with the Angels.

You know that much-repeated story about how Die Hard 2 wasn’t actually written to be a Die Hard script, just retooled from an existing screenplay? Charlie’s Angels feels like the studio has an endless supply of Mad Lib-type Mission Impossible scripts that it culled this particular globe-trotting action-adventure from. The central Macguffin is uninteresting; the villains are assembly-line. The locations (which include Turkey and… uh… a mine somewhere or other) are generic as all-get-out. The only thing that separates the bones of Charlie’s Angels from anything else is the characters, and even that falls under extremely codified and familiar lines. Sabina is the wisecracking badass who never takes anything seriously (in most of these movies, that role is fulfilled by Ryan Reynolds); Jane is the stonefaced badass with a surprising heart of gold (in most of these movies, that role is fulfilled by some wrestler or other oily, muscular dude); Elena is the nerdy, accident-prone comedic relief who learns that she’s better at this agent stuff than one would lead her to believe (in most of these movies, that role is fulfilled by a more broadly comedic actor than Ryan Reynolds).

That’s where, I think, Charlie’s Angels really shows the limits of an IP like this one. Everything here is treated as if the audience is already aware of it. The characters are presented as the ones we know and love, rather than new versions of archetypes that have carried over from an already simple concept. McG’s version of the film, for all its flaws, was cast with three movie stars with existing personas; the only movie star here is Stewart, and she’s playing a pretty radically different version of the arthouse persona she’s cultivated. To put it bluntly, we’re being fed something as if we already know and like it, and the film is made along those lines.

I wanted to like Charlie’s Angels because I wanted these actresses that I like to be in something that felt like it truly belonged to them. It’s always worrisome when I see a movie like this one — where the marketing is framed around the fact that the film is explicitly not for me, a straight white man in his 30s — and I end up not liking it. The fact is that Charlie’s Angels is definitely not made for me in the abstract, but the final product — this generic globe-trotting action movie with clunky action scenes and telegraphed twists — is sort of made for everyone. It’s as generic a product as anything else I’ve seen this year. ■

Charlie’s Angels opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Nov. 15. Watch the trailer here: