Charlie's Angels shouldn't work as well as it does. Easily distracted, with a bare-bones plot that's little more than an excuse to send its heroes to exotic locales, it tries very hard to be very cool. But a game cast and solid direction from Elizabeth Banks helps the film to rise above its flaws with a sense of style.
Existing in a universe that builds off the events of the previous television series and films, the peace-keeping Townsend Agency now has an international branch that deposits Bosleys and Angels around the world. When a young engineer named Jane (Ella Balinska) becomes entangled in a plot to turn a new energy source into a deadly weapon, she's brought in by Angels -- the wild and unpredictable Sabine (Kristen Stewart) and the no-nonsense former MI6 agent Elena (Naomi Scott) -- and their Bosley (Elizabeth Banks) to uncover the truth behind who wants the weapon, and why.
Banks' screenplay relies on charm, breezing through the overarching plot to showcase character beats with action scenes. The movie barrels along from one fight sequence to another, connected less through a narrative than through the characters. The focus is never on the story, with plot twists landing with no warning or impact. The trips around the world simply lay the groundwork for new set pieces, some of which -- such as an extended scene at a race track -- are completely inconsequential to the movie around it.
What makes the movie work is the talent. The three leads are having a blast, which bleeds out into the final product. Stewart plays Sabine with a manic glint, but with enough awareness to keep her from going too far over the top. Balinska milks the "rookie dragged into things" role for all it's worth, imbuing her character with just enough earnestness to make her lovable. Scott gets some of the most surprising laughs, her cold exterior breaking to reveal outpourings of emotion.
The interactions between the three (especially the prickly friendship between Sabine and Elena) are among the highlights, and their chemistry drives the film forward even when the plot stumbles. Other strong points come from the brief-but-memorable minor characters like the Angels' New Age tech expert Saint (Luis Gerardo Méndez) and love-struck criminal Jonny Smith (Chris Pang).
Because the film largely values style over substance, the set pieces need to impress to make it work. Luckily, Banks -- a veteran of the Pitch Perfect franchise -- delivers. The action beats are well-choreographed, creative and, most of all, exciting. Almost every major sequence finds ways to escalate naturally, and with comedic flair, especially an extended fight scene/car chase toward the beginning that introduces the primary physical antagonist, the nigh-unstoppable Mister Hodak (Jonathan Tucker). Played as a silent assassin that the Angels keep encountering, he provides Banks with plenty of room to compose exciting moments around the efforts to defeat him. It all works well, and in an ideal world, will allow Banks to keep growing in this genre.
The movie is at its best when Banks stops trying to make the Angels seem cool and just allows them to be cool. The moments in which the characters are permitted to simply play off each other, and the creative sequences that deftly meld action with the occasional flash of levity are far more entertaining than the afterthought narrative around which it's all nominally centered. At times, Charlie's Angels can feel forced as it barrels through the plot to reach the fun elements. But those are undeniably entertaining.
Written and directed by Elizabeth Banks, Charlie’s Angels, stars Kristen Stewart, Ella Balinska, Naomi Scott, Elizabeth Banks, Patrick Stewart, Djimon Hounsou, Jonathan Tucker, Nat Faxon, Noah Centineo, Sarah Bennani and Robert Maaser. The film opens Friday nationwide.