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Non-Review Review: Charlie’s Angels (2019)

Charlie’s Angels is a fascinating tonal mess. It doesn’t work at all, but the ways in which it doesn’t work are fascinating.

Charlie’s Angels feels like something of a hybrid. It combines several different styles of blockbuster into a single film. It pitches itself as a campy and goofy stupid 1990s blockbuster, but inflected with a veneer of 2000s self-seriousness and filtered through the lens of 2010s ironic self-awareness. However, these elements do not compliment one another, and Charlie’s Angels is never particularly interested in either smoothing over the gaps or exploring the dissonance. The result is an aesthetic that is probably best described as “comedically sociopathic.

Three of a kind.

It’s a shame, because there is some interesting stuff here. Writer and director Elizabeth Banks plays with ideas like the female gaze, and trying to reappropriate the franchise’s iconography and history for the twenty-first century. However, Charlie’s Angels lacks the clean focus that is necessary for a project like this to work, it cannot even figure out whether it wants to be a ground-up rebuild of the classic model or a nostalgic tweak upon it, and so seems to wander the gulf between those two extremes.

Charlie’s Angels is a strangely lifeless blockbuster, for a film that tries to cram so much in.

Solid as a rock?

There are a number of markers within Charlie’s Angels that define as a piece of modern franchise cinema. The film has a strong sense of continuity and history. It isn’t starting from scratch, and doesn’t want its audience to think that it is starting from scratch. Photos and dialogue suggest that the film exists in continuity with McG’s twin blockbusters. One late-stage cameo suggests that Charlie’s Angels is building an internal continuity that reaches back to the original seventies series. The casting of Patrick Stewart as a veteran “Boseley” plays into this idea of legacy.

This sense of history is increasingly important to modern franchise installments, which often live on winking references to a long-established continuity to create the illusion of one seamless narrative that spans from the past into the future. When JJ Abrams offered a soft reboot of the Star Trek franchise, he did that while carrying over Leonard Nimoy to create a sense of continuity. Terminator: Dark Fate sought to establish its franchise bona fides with the return of stars Linda Hamilton and Edward Furlong. Charlie’s Angels feels of a piece with those efforts.

More to the point, Charlie’s Angels carries over the sense of irony and detachment that defines so much modern franchise film-making, especially following the success of Iron Man. There is a sense that earnestness and emotion are manipulative and cloying, that audiences are inherently wary of familiar plots and premises, and that the internet is just waiting to pick holes in a film’s narrative. As a result, modern blockbusters tend to position themselves as self-aware and playful, consistently commenting upon their own absurdity and contrivances.

With Charlie’s Angels, there are various points where characters stop to discuss the kind of story that they are in or to construct laboured pop culture references; do characters recognise Michael Keaton from Birdman or from Batman? Everything is done in a jokey and playful manner. Characters repeatedly point out how unnecessarily violent Jane’s methods are, but these serve to set up punchlines about how inured she is to that brutality. When she talks about subduing an innocent tech company employee, she insists it didn’t hurt. She pauses. “Unless it did.”

Finding an angle on the Angels.

This modern style of franchise blockbuster is an awkward fit with the goofy cheesy nineties energy that drives the plot. Charlie’s Angel unfolds in a ridiculously heightened world, the kind of cartoonish reality that defined so many older blockbusters. This is a world where an assassin at a coffee shop just happens to have an armoured jeep outside that just happens to keep a minigun in its gearbox in the event of car chases through German cities.

There other strangely anachronistic touches. The movie’s feminism is very much rooted in a nineties idea of “girl power”, opening with shot of Kristen Stewart explaining, “I believe that women can do anything.” While the film includes a number of micro-aggressions against whistleblower Elena – unwanted physical contact from her boss, attention from a security guard, being told to “smile” – her experiences feel very generic for a film like this. Elena has uncovered a corporate conspiracy, and is being silenced. It is a suitably broad apolitical narrative starting point.

Similarly, the film features a tie-in soundtrack album. These sorts of projects are rare these days, reflecting the decline of physical media. Indeed, most films with accompanying soundtracks tend to lean into nostalgia – the “Awesome Mixtape” from Guardians of the Galaxy or the curated collections from Baby Driver or Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. As such, the inclusion of a soundtrack featuring new songs (and new remixes) from hot artists – and the decision to build that into the marketing – feels almost like a weird throwback.

The plot of Charlie’s Angels feels lifted from some forgotten nineties blockbuster, like Chain Reaction. Elena has developed the ultimate clean energy technology, a tiny cube that can power an entire building without the need for physical wiring. Naturally, as tends to be the way in these sorts of old-fashioned blockbusters, this environmentally-friendly technology is too dangerous to be allowed out into the world. This plot reference to The Man With the Golden Gun isn’t the only time it feels like Charlie’s Angels is homaging Roger Moore’s James Bond films.

This picture is cropped.

This is a world where law enforcement doesn’t seem to exist, no matter how often Boseley might allude casually to his “friends in law enforcement.” In the opening scenes, an entire army of catsuit clad ninjas can descend upon a penthouse and repel down the side of a skyscraper. The entire premise of the movie hinges on an international paramilitary organisation that never has to worry about crossing borders or human rights. There’s a goofiness to the premise that has been deliberately scaled up, in a way that recalls nineties blockbusters, but jars with the ironic touches.

However, there is also a strange self-seriousness to Charlie’s Angels. Despite the combination of irony and cartoonishness, there is a bizarre effort to ground the story. Charlie’s Angels takes its world seriously enough that characters die in surprisingly violent ways; one innocent security guard is killed by an EMP-triggered brain seizure, another henchman is fed into a rock crusher, while a secondary villain is impaled on an ice sculpture. Although the film avoids an R-rating, the editing choices and sound design are vivid enough that these moments feel painful and shocking.

The problem arises in trying to combine that level of violence with the film’s desire to be carefree and playful. Charlie’s Angels is also so committed to the idea that it is having fun that it never dwells on the consequences or aftermath of these violent beats. The film’s edit treats these surprisingly brutal moments as punchlines. When Elena worries about a guard that she disabled, the other characters assure her that he will be fine; the film then cuts to a forensics team laying a white cloth over his body, a staggeringly ill-judged punchline.

After one character accidentally kills an innocent bystander, she seems disturbed by that fact. However, she is quickly assured, “Don’t put that on yourself.” That is the end of the conversation. The death is never mentioned again, because having to deal with that would bring down the mood of the movie and push it away from the fun and empowering adventure that it is meant to be. Unfortunately, Charlie’s Angels never bothers to realise that having heroic characters kill off innocent bystanders in the first place, and drawing attention to it, tends to bring down the mood.

No drive.

Towards the climax of the film, a character is thrown from a balcony on to a pointed ice sculpture. It is a visceral moment. The villain lands with a sickening thud. There is an insert shot of blood trickling down his limp hand, confirming that he is truly dead. It’s a shocking, vivid action beat. It stops the movie dead, as well it should. However, the film cuts to a shot of tech billionaire and party host Alexander Brock, drowning his sorrows in vodka. Brock punctuates this moment of graphic violence with an absurd, “What the hell is going on?

There are a number of obvious examples of the tonal imbalance created by this mismatch of aesthetics. Kristen Stewart is one of the most interesting young actors working today. Her primary strength is her interiority. This is no small thing; very few actors can express the process of thinking, so it takes no small skill to hold the audience’s interest while remaining inscrutable. As with actors like Timothée Chalamet or Robert Pattinson, Stewart is an exceptional brooder and can mine a deep reservoir of pathos or tragedy in her performances.

Somehow, Charlie’s Angels spectacularly misjudges Stewart. The film casts its single bona fides movie star and its strongest lead performer as the goofy comic relief. Stewart plays Sabina, the playful and absent-minded Park Avenue heiress who lacks focus and discipline. Oddly enough, Charlie’s Angels seems to understand that Stewart’s star wattage. She is top-billed in the cast. The opening scene is largely given over to Stewart, suggesting that she is to serve as the audience’s window into this world. However, she quickly disappears into the background.

Sabina is the only member of the primary cast who isn’t given an arc to play. She starts the movie as both highly competent and unreliable, and ends the movie as both highly competent and unreliable. In contrast, Jane and Elena both get something resembling an arc. Jane is initially hesitant to take on a single partner, but ends the movie as part of a trio. Elena is taken out of the world that she knows and dropped into a world of high-stakes international espionage.

Stewing.

In terms of simple storytelling logistics, the casting of Jane and Elena is much more important than that of Sabina. Charlie’s Angels needs an actor somewhere in the cast who can provide human stakes amid all the spectacle, and Stewart is that actor. However, she is put in a position where she cannot be the load-bearing performer that the film needs. Stewart is an appreciably strong actor than Naomi Scott or Ella Balinska, but is given a lot less to do.

To be fair, it is theoretically possible to cast these sorts of actors as comedic support, allowing them to play against type and creating an effective juxtaposition with their star persona. However, this usually requires a showier role than Sabina offers Stewart, something akin to the casting of Colin Farrell in Horrible Bosses or Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada or even Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder. However, those sorts of choices should be made only after buttressing the lead role.

Robert Pattinson’s heightened comic relief turn in The King works relatively well because he’s playing off an actor like Timothée Chalamet, who is anchoring the film in the lead role. In contrast, Charlie’s Angels has a single cast member actor who could theoretically lead a project like this, but pushes her to the edge of frame. One of the best scenes in Charlie’s Angels is low-key, involving Stewart interacting with a little girl on a ferry in Istanbul. It’s sweet, it’s charming, and it demonstrates how much Stewart brings. Unfortunately, that moment is fleeting, lost in the ether.

Similarly, Jonathan Tucker’s silent assassin “Hodek” is clearly meant to be the same sort of cartoonish henchman archetype embodied by Crispen Glover’s character in McG films. Hodek is defined as inherently “other”; he has tattoos, he relies heavily on his physicality, he constantly over-dresses. However, because Charlie’s Angels is a more “grounded” film than those earlier installments, the most colourful thing about Hodek is that he wears purple socks, which can be glimpsed during frantically-edited inserts within the movie’s first chase sequence.

Not playing with a Hodek.

The flipside of this is that without strong characters or performers on which it might lean, Charlie’s Angels finds itself investing a lot of energy in plotting and narrative. However, the plotting isn’t clever, it’s just convoluted. The basic arc of Charlie’s Angels is easy to predict from the opening minutes, and the film runs through a list of action movie clichés; there is a weapon of mass destruction, an audience-identification character who gets sucked into the action, a mole inside the agency, and a red herring to distract from the only other possibility. It’s paint-by-numbers.

Charlie’s Angels is a mess of different styles and influences, never settling into one particular mode or landing a singular cohesive identity. Charlie’s Angels wants to have its cake and eat it, to be everything to everybody, and so has produced a film that will satisfy very few people. At a push, you could argue that crashing these differing blockbuster aesthetics into one another is at least interesting in an increasingly generic factory-setting blockbuster landscape, but the results are too jarring and contradictory to support such a case.

This is a shame, as there are some interesting elements at play in all of this. Banks is not a particularly technically accomplished director. As with Ruben Fleischer’s work on Venom, there is a sense that Banks struggles with the action beats that a modern blockbuster demands. She leans a heavily of cranking and zooming, never seems to settle on a particular visual aesthetic – cities like Berlin are introduced by a simple purple chyron, while Istanbul gets its name plastered all over the screen in a variety of quick cuts and a chyron.

Nevertheless, there is something interesting in how Banks plays with the idea of the male gaze and its importance to the entire concept of Charlie’s Angels. After all, as much as the original series could be seen to be empowering, it as all filtered through the lens of male fantasy – conventionally attractive women in tight (and revealing) clothing shot in in such a way as to emphasise their sexuality. Even McG’s remakes played into this, leaning into slow motion shots and cat suits.

Heiring her issues.

In contrast, there is something interesting in how Charlie’s Angels approaches the material. It opens with a camera staring directly at Stewart across a dining table, placing the audience within a literal male gaze. The sleazy source of that gaze – “Johnny Australia” – alludes to Sabina as “Miss Independent”, in an allusion to the Destiny’s Child single Independent Women which accompanied the earlier reimagining. However, structuring her opening as a firm rejection of the male gaze, the rest of the film opts not to leer at its subjects.

Charlie’s Angels allows its characters to fresh well and to show skin, but never for the camera’s delectation. There is a recurring sense within Charlie’s Angels that the characters are dressed for their own comfort and style, rather than to exist like their predecessors for the presumed male viewer. However, while Banks strips out the male gaze, she never finds anything with which she might replace it. There is never a sense that Banks has found a different way of filming these same subjects, as Patty Jenkins did with Wonder Woman or Lorene Scafaria did with Hustlers.

There is a sense in which Charlie’s Angels occasionally leans into less masculine ideas of pleasure, prioritising archetypes of feminine desire. The film leans into triangular imagery, underscoring not just the importance of its central trio, but its emphasis on femininity. The “Townsend” company logo recurs throughout the film, and the climax of the movie finds the characters passing through triangular light frames in doorways. The symbolism is not subtle, but it need not be. It is the closest that the film comes to arguing for feminine intrusion into a conventional masculine space.

However, there is also a clumsiness at play, and a lack of cohesion. None of this adds up to anything more than the most superficial of imagery. Of course, it doesn’t have to, but there is nothing else holding the film together. At one point, Elena is taken to the group’s secret headquarters in Berlin, where she meets “Saint”, who serves as a one-man support mechanism for the agents; a chef, a spiritual advisor, a licensed psycho therapist. However, this feels more like a broadly drawn cliché than a compelling expression of desire or perspective. The results feel largely hollow.

Lightening the mood.

Charlie’s Angels is a frustrating misfire of a film, one lacking a clear and consistent vision of what it wants to be and how it wants to be about it.

One Response

  1. The original Sabrina, Kelly and Kris are still alive. I’d rather see them.

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