This past week, I watched both the Charlie’s Angels reboot and the 2000 movie for comparison. The latter, starring Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, and Lucy Liu, is slick and snappy. The reboot—notably directed by a woman, Elizabeth Banks—with Ella Balinska, Naomi Scott, and Kristen Stewart as the Angels, is more laid-back. A harsher descriptor would be “uninspired.”
Some of the differences between the films seem symptomatic of their eras. In the early 2000s, before 30 Rock both mocked and continued the concept, American pop culture was telling us women could “have it all,” which often in practice meant conventionally attractive, heterosexual white women should balance challenging careers with dating men—sometimes failing at both, but in a cute, energetic, “relatable” way. Today, this is still somewhat true, but there’s more acknowledgment that women’s experiences and desires differ, and sometimes they don’t involve men in a significant way, a concept Banks’ reboot feels in step with.
This doesn’t mean the film gets a critical pass. Yes, we can be glad, or just relieved, that two of the Angels are played by women of color, that Chris Pang didn’t have to fake an Asian accent for his villain role, and that Stewart’s Angel gives off a strong queer vibe. Banks deserves credit for being receptive to her cast’s informed feelings about their characters’ representation. However, the film doesn’t seem to entirely understand its own attempts at a feminist message, which only contributes to its awkward craft.
The plot is put into motion by Elena (Scott), a programmer aware of potentially fatal dangers in a device she designed called Calisto. When her male superior refuses to take her concerns seriously, she reaches out to the Angels’ organization for help, and winds up on the run from a mysterious assassin along with Jane (Balinska) and Sabina (Stewart). Soon, Elena’s working with the Angels and Rebekah “Bosley” (Banks) to stop Calisto from being released.
The resulting story is twisty but underwhelming. As the main appeal of Charlie’s Angels lies in the entertaining whirlwind of its protagonists’ words and actions, this might not matter much if the action and dialogue weren’t somewhat lacking, too. Many attempts at humor fall flat, like an unfunny crack Rebekah makes about women always being hungry. Another odd scene unfolds when Sabina, having fallen unconscious, wakes to Jane crying over her, and the two have a bonding scene that might be touching if it weren’t ridiculously rushed. This kind of weird pacing often doesn’t seem like the fault of the actors, but rather the editing or script.
Charlie’s Angels still manages to be a fun action movie, with engaging acting shining through its muddled filmmaking. When Elena refers to Jane and Sabina as “lady spies,” Sabina nods and points to herself as if flattered. This goofy but vulnerable gesture plays warmly off the frivolousness in Elena’s delivery of the gendered term. While there’s space here to incorporate irony or sarcasm, that’s not what happens. Instead, we feel the effect of misogynistic language not just losing its power but being repurposed for women’s joy.
This film makes me reflect on how complex representation really is. As a queer Asian woman who thinks Lucy Liu is great, I would choose to watch this somewhat disappointing reboot again over the technically more adept 2000 Charlie’s Angels, just for moments like the one above. They offer the feeling that it’s possible for women to be not simply performatively powerful but truly free from gendered expectations, and that seems like an appropriately inspiring message for a movie about lady spies.