'Charlie's Angels' review: OK Boomer, this movie is better than the TV show

Elizabeth Banks proves her chops as an action director in 'Charlie's Angels,' a surprising delight that exceeds low expectations.

Sony Pictures

The first four minutes of Charlie’s Angels feels like it was made for horny straight dudes in the worst way possible. Kristen Stewart, as an undercover agent, flirts with a suit in a luxury German hotel suite. The camera lingers longingly at her smooth legs. But in these first few minutes, director Elizabeth Banks makes a point. This is what other action movies look like, Banks seems to say. Now here’s something different.

As Stewart kicks ass and takes off her blonde wig, Charlie’s Angels becomes something else, and something better. Exhilarating and alive with a likable cast, it isn’t as good as it can be, but it’s far better than you might expect. Even the worst problems, namely a twisty betrayal plot that sometimes slows momentum to a halt, cannot doom Charlie’s Angels to bad reboot hell.

It’s a movie that thrills with brutal action and tender characters. It might even be the best action movie of the fall, if only by default. What else is coming out? Who cares. Charlie’s Angels will do just fine.

In theaters Friday, Charlie’s Angels from Banks (who also stars in the movie as Bosley), is a continuation of the 2000s films with Easter eggs that nod at a shared universe with the TV series that aired 1976-1981. Charlie’s Angels 2K19 stars a new generation, Sabina (Stewart) and Jane (Ella Balinska) who recruit a scientist, Elena (Naomi Scott), when she blows the whistle on a tech CEO’s plans for clean energy to be weaponized into a bomb. Patrick Stewart also plays an important role as a second Bosley.

Ella Balinska, Kristen Stewart, and Naomi Scott star in 'Charlie's Angels' (2019).

Sony Pictures

Hysterical in its wit and comforting in its characters’ warmth toward each another, Charlie’s Angels is the rare, maybe only, millennial adaptation of boomer pop culture that’s in better hands than with the olds who invented it. The film’s confidence in its femininity without adhering to masculine definitions is empowering, refreshing, and likely to leave a real impression on young audiences. That it also isn’t afraid to let its female characters have visible emotions, like loss and love, feels profound. In the opening credits, a montage of young girls from around the world live their best lives.

Message received: This is not your boomer uncle’s Charlie’s Angels.

And you know it’s not Charlie’s Angels of yore because it actually kicks ass. In a time when major studios seem to throw gobbles of dough towards set-pieces, Charlie’s Angels is refreshingly frugal, fostering palpable realism. Visually, it bears little semblance to Marvel or Fast & Furious (a series that gets a light roast in the film). Instead, it aims to compete with John Wick using no-nonsense choreography and gory kills.

Angels still succumbs to shaky camera work, but the overall package measures up. In only her second movie in the director’s chair, Banks demonstrates a keen understanding of the rhythm, pacing, and staging necessary in good action movies. Give Banks another major action IP and see what happens.

Balinska and Stewart, in 'Charlie's Angels' (2019). 

Sony Pictures

But Charlie’s Angels works most of all because of its stellar cast. Though there are times where and Scott and especially Stewart seem to behave like they’re in another movie, it’s when these women are all together, mapping out and navigating the comically overcooked plot, that Charlie’s Angels finds its element. As other game-changing action movies like The Avengers prove, it’s in the subdued interactions where the excitement really lies, and Charlie’s Angels has that in spades.

A moment on Kristen Stewart’s Sabina. Sometimes, she’s the movie’s MVP. Sometimes, she’s its biggest liability. Ultimately, Stewart’s standing lies in your tolerance for “witty” characters, and whatever notions you have left over from her Twilight years. (You can tell someone hasn’t seen Personal Shopper when the tween series is brought up.) Stewart can, in fact, act the pants off people, but her Sabina is sometimes out of sync with the rest of the film. That she’s also the only one who lacks a real arc despite an intriguing backstory leaves her in some perpetual stasis, but if she makes you laugh, mission accomplished.

'Charlie's Angels,' with director Elizabeth Banks who also has a supporting role as "Bosley" -- one of many.

Sony Pictures

Fun, fast, and breezy like the winds of the Turkish coast where much of the film was shot, Charlie’s Angels is just plain awesome. Its uniquely aggressive bisexual energy has broad appeal without ever feeling icky. That it’s also a pretty hardcore action movie makes it one of the rare must-see blockbusters of the season. With only average camera work and moderately impressive choreography, Charlie’s Angels sits on the lower end of the high action tier, beneath John Wick, Atomic Blonde, and far beneath Mad Max Fury Road. But that it’s even in the same league is something to behold. It’s a good morning to be an Angel.

Charlie’s Angels is in theaters November 15.