Kristen Stewart's Magnetic Performance Makes the New 'Charlie's Angels' Worthwhile
Kristen Stewart has a reputation for being morose. It's an unfair assessment of her career, certainly, but it's one that has stemmed from the role that propelled her to super-stardom, the moody Bella Swan in Twilight. As her work in the years since the end of that YA saga have proven, Stewart is a remarkable performer, working with auteurs in the foreign and indie spaces. But her best work has often been internal and understated, like her turns in Olivier Assayas' Personal Shopper and Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women. That's why it's such a delightful surprise to watch her go big and broad playing essentially the comic relief in the new remake of Charlie's Angels.
Elizabeth Banks' update of the 1970s TV show, which became an early aughts movie franchise, is often a rocky (though not entirely unpleasant) watch. The action is a little muddled, and the plot is borderline nonsensical. But Kristen Stewart is extraordinary. She stomps around the movie exuding the kind of magnetic energy of the acquaintance you're desperate to become best friends with because she's just so cool and funny and may or may not have a dark past. Her style is enviable, yes, but she also lands punchlines right and left, livening up the screen every time she appears. When she leaves the frame, you're desperate for her to show up again. Watching Stewart in Charlie's Angels is testament to her genuine movie star power.
At risk of sounding wishy-washy, the rest of the movie is fine. Charlie's Angels is neither egregiously bad, nor particularly good, existing in that space reserved for movies easily watched on a plane or on cable during a lazy Sunday when inertia takes over. (That is, if anyone still had cable.) In Banks' retelling, the legacies of Farrah Fawcett and Cameron Diaz are not erased, just evolved. The Townsend Agency still churns out female super spies. Among those talented women are a former MI6 operative, the highly competent Jane (Ella Balinska), and reformed bad girl heiress Sabina (my girl K-Stew). Jane and Sabina are an odd couple brought together to help Elena (Naomi Scott), a whistleblower at a tech firm, who seems like a perfect Angel candidate. (Hey, aren't the Angels typically a trio?) The MacGuffin here is a device developed by Elena's company that's supposed to provide sustainable power, but has a fatal flaw: if rewired, it could kill anyone in its vicinity. When the Bosley (Djimon Hounsou), the name typically given to Townsend handlers, working with Jane and Sabina is killed, a new one played by Banks and her fabulous wardrobe takes over.
As far as the actual plot goes, the Angels have to keep the device out of the hands of some bad guys. It takes them to various exotic locales, and involves various set pieces, including a horse race in Istanbul. The details of just who wants this tool don't actually become interesting until the very end, when Patrick Stewart, as a retired Bosley, gets involved in a fun scenery chewing turn.
Part of the enduring fun of every incarnation of Charlie's Angels is the sheer ridiculousness of the setup, and one wishes Banks had let her team lean into that a little bit more. There are moments of inspired lunacy, including a cheese feast at a safe house and a random dance sequence, but for the most part, everyone (save for Stewart) plays it extremely straight. Banks is rightfully concerned with making sure the Angels are taken seriously as feminist heroes, but that sometimes results in eye-roll-worthy self-seriousness. See, for instance, the title sequence full of quasi-inspirational stock footage featuring young girls, the implication being all of them could eventually be angels. But, at this point, it goes without saying that women can be action stars. Female audiences don't need to be pandered to; we just want to see our peers kick ass and have a good time. Some of the silliest gags (featuring cameos from accomplished women in a variety of fields) in this movie don't come until the end credits as part of Elena's Angel training sequence. (Yes, Elena doesn't even become a full-fledged Angel until the end, which says something about the overall momentum of the film.)
Scott, underserved in Disney's Aladdin remake, is goofily naïve as Elena, while Balinska has the tougher role as the humorless one. But it's Stewart who stands out, the glint of mischief in her eye as she carries scenes. Sabina's backstory, referenced obliquely, is that she was a Gossip Girl-style rich girl who reformed her ways when Charlie recruited her. I say: Bring on the spinoff, especially if it means more of Stewart mugging her way through scenes in Kym Barrett's exquisite costumes. Truthfully, I'm not ashamed to admit that half my enjoyment of this movie was coveting the various outfits that Stewart wears.
As a mystery and spy-thriller, the new Charlie's Angels is underwhelming. As a vehicle for Kristen Stewart to prove she can carry a blockbuster, it's positively angelic.