The new Charlie’s Angels is one of very few action movies to have been written and directed by a woman, in this case Elizabeth Banks. Its three heroines, played by Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott and Ella Balinska, come from different ethnic backgrounds, and the theme repeated throughout is that women can do anything, but are endlessly underestimated by men. In Hollywood terms, then, the film is groundbreakingly progressive. It’s something to be celebrated and supported. Or rather, it would have been if it weren’t so terrible.

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In Banks’s update of the 1970s television hit, the mysterious Charlie Townsend no longer funds a trio of Los Angeles-based private detectives he calls the Angels, but now has a global espionage organisation with a zillion-dollar annual budget and no visible source of income. And his right-hand man is no longer John Bosley, instead, “Bosley” is a codename given to numerous handlers all over the world who keep an eye on their squads of Angels, which means that Patrick Stewart and Djimon Hounsou are both Bosleys, but the main one is played by Banks herself.

Charlie’s Angels is a bland, witless yet ludicrous international spy caper

The revisions are clever enough, and they don’t contradict either the TV series or the films which starred Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu in 2000 and 2003. But their net result is to turn Charlie’s Angels into a bland, witless yet ludicrous international spy caper, a tediously formulaic sub-Mission: Impossible B-movie with the usual funky drumbeat on the soundtrack, the usual hyperactive editing that chops the fight scenes into confetti-sized fragments; the usual close-ups of car badges so that we know who paid for product placement, and the usual captions announcing that we are in Berlin or London or Istanbul (all of today’s action blockbusters are legally required to stop off in Istanbul). The structure is familiar, too. Like Kingsman: The Secret Service and Men In Black: International, Charlie’s Angels has an eager outsider joining a covert crime-fighting crew. Elena (Scott) is the naive fledgling, while Sabina (Stewart) and Jane (Balinska) are the veterans who take her under their Angel wings.

The most unimaginative element of a grimly unimaginative film is ‘Callisto’, a computerised Rubik’s Cube that can generate clean sustainable energy, or something. But, wait, Callisto can also be used to zap everyone in its vicinity with a fatal electro-magnetic pulse! It is “a perfect assassination machine”, which is why someone is planning to steal it and sell it on the black market. The annoying thing about this feeble premise is that Callisto would be worth far more as a pocket-sized power plant than as an assassination machine, perfect or otherwise, so the thief should really have rethought his business plan. 

Anyway, the boffin who developed Callisto is Elena. She knows that it can be weaponised, so she wants the CEO of her tech corporation, Alexander Brok (Sam Claflin), to let her iron out that glitch – easy enough, you might think. But Elena decides to contact Townsend’s top-secret spy agency instead, because apparently having a quiet word with her boss over cocktails would have been unfeasible, whereas having a clandestine meeting with strangers in a Hamburg cafe is simplicity itself.

Just to prove how unwise Elena’s choice was, her meeting with Bosley and Jane is interrupted by a hired killer (Jonathan Tucker) who is very much not “a perfect assassination machine”: he does his killing in broad daylight, in public, using military hardware, while making sure his face and distinctive tattoos are visible at all times. Luckily for him, the Angels are even more inept than he is. While Elena is in the cafe with Jane, Sabina is keeping watch from the top of a building across the road. So, what does she do when the killer attacks? Abseil from the building? Strap on a parachute? No, she jogs down 10 flights of stairs, thus giving him ample time to drive away, and giving the viewer ample time to reflect on what a stupid place she chose for her look-out duty.

Rather than having a story, the film has a string of rote action sequences

And so it goes on. The most depressing part of Charlie’s Angels is that the feminist agenda it trumpets in so many clumsy speeches is drowned out by the Angels’ own incompetence. Rather than having a story, the film has a string of rote action sequences, and each of these sequences goes the same way: Bosley tells the Angels where the villains are; the Angels stride into wherever they need to be, in their impractical designer outfits; they make a mess of things; and the villains escape. The Angels also manage to assault and /or murder various innocent bystanders while they’re at it, so if the film had any morals it would have ended with the three of them in prison.

That might have been a relief. Scott is sympathetic as the blundering, wide-eyed Elena, but in general the current Angels make you appreciate how charismatic Diaz, Barrymore and Liu were in comparison. The casting problems are obvious from the first moment Stewart strains to be a loud, goofy extrovert, the exact opposite of every role she has had before. Presumably, the same casting director picked Dwayne Johnson to play a shy, mild-mannered bookworm the next day. As for Balinska, her character is a former British intelligence agent who joined the Angels after becoming disillusioned with MI6 years earlier. Balinska is 23. Assuming that MI6 doesn’t recruit its agents in primary schools, the role should probably have gone to an actor a decade older.

Still, Balinska and her co-stars are all exceptionally young and beautiful, and that’s what Charlie’s Angels has always been about. The latest trio may show a lot less skin than their counterparts did in the 1970s, but the physical attributes you need to be a Charlie’s Angel are much the same as you need to be a Victoria’s Secret Angel. The film remains, in some ways, groundbreakingly progressive, but a super-spy who doesn’t look like a supermodel? Clearly, that would have been going too far.

★☆☆☆☆

Charlie’s Angels

Director: Elizabeth Banks

Cast: Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, Ella Balinska

Run-time: 118 minutes

Release date: 15 November in the US, 29 November in the UK

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