The first thing I thought when I heard they were doing a new Charlie’s Angels film was whether or not people really wanted a new Charlie’s Angel film. This has been pretty conclusively answered by the very low international box office figures but let’s get into that question a little bit more.
The original seventies TV show certainly celebrated strong and smart women succeeding in a chauvinist world but it was still told very much on male terms. More so than the contemporaneous Wonder Woman show the most important thing about the central characters was how they wore their hair and how often they smiled. Okay, maybe not more than Wonder Woman; it’s a close run thing.
Then twenty years ago (yep, twenty years) we got three new Angels in the shape of Drew Barrymore, Lucy Liu and Cameron Diaz. I have to admit that I thought those movies were fun at the time but they really ramped up the whole empowered, underestimated women aspect AND the sexiness. These ladies were demonstrably presented as objects of desire and the way they played on this had all the subtly of, and was about as progressive as, the Carry On films. There was no escaping the fact that these movies were directed by a man, if you were to doubt about this it would have been due to your suspicions that the whole thing actually came from the brain of a heterosexual thirteen year old boy.
There was actually another short lived television show in 2011 but audiences seemed even less interested in that than this new film and it came and went very quickly. It didn’t have anyone attached to it that you’d have heard of.
Charlie’s Angels 2019 clearly features three beautiful women just as always but what they’ve got right this time is how they own and control their own sexuality. This one is written and directed by a woman and it shows. Under the guidance of Elizabeth Banks we get three female spies who use short dresses to get the upper hand just as much as their wits and skills but this is presented as part of their power in a way that isn’t compromised by how much the narrative and the camera focuses on the former at the expense of the latter.
Actually I say three spies but that’s not quite right. Kristen Stewart and Ella Balinska are highly trained special operatives but they are very far from being the only two and the third part of the trio, Naomi Scott, is essentially a member of the public. By highlighting the value all women have, not just those with advanced fight and weapons training, the film nicely echoes the ‘all girls are superheroes’ theme from the final season of Buffy. There is also a certain level of gallows humour that isn’t commonly associated with women, at least not prior to Killing Eve.
While the film wears its feminism on its sleeve much of these smaller contextual steps forward may pass a lot of people by. It is also a shame that like X-Men the film struggles to get away from the patriarchal nature of its established title. The on hand boss is female this time, Banks taking this role herself, but the ultimate hierarchy still stops at Charles Townsend and he still seems to have some possessive position over his ‘angels’ which by itself is a word that carries belittling gender associations. This more than anything is an argument against making the movie at all when they could just have gone ahead and made something original, if derivative, called Charlotte’s Agents.
Unfortunately, for all that the film does that is new there is still quite a lot that isn’t and fear of this is probably why people have stayed away. Once again we get to see the Angels/Agents breaking into a high tech facility with stolen finger prints, hiding guns in their garters, jumping out of planes and cruising around in open top cars laughing with camaraderie once the mission is done. There is a scene that borrows heavily from the final museum sequence in The Thomas Crown Affair and another that steals liberally from the wardrobe armoury moment in Kingsman. It ultimately doesn’t feel that fresh.
There is an argument that we didn’t need another Charlie’s Angels film then but actually if you are new to the property, and spy and heist movies in general, then the modern approach to the gender politics probably means you are better to go with this one than dig out any of the previous efforts. I’m not sure that this alone is enough to justify its existence though. Go and watch Agent Carter instead.