Farrah Fawcett (or Cheryl Ladd), Kate Jackson, Jacklyn Smith and a speaker box. Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, Lucy Liu and a speaker box. Whatever its merits as a television show or an early aughts movie franchise, Charlie's Angels has been more or less a democracy, with an emphasis on crime-fighting teamwork and an equal distribution of "Jiggle TV" lasciviousness. Fawcett and Barrymore may have been the tip of the spear, but the formula calls for a balanced trio, spurred into adventure by a disembodied male boss and their put-upon handler.
That dynamic ends in the new Charlie's Angels, which stars Kristen Stewart and two actresses of limited renown — one who played Jasmine in the live-action Aladdin and another whose credits are too short and obscure to mention. Stewart is both the unquestioned lead and a chaos agent, freelancing around the action and dialogue scenes like a cartoon troublemaker and extending herself as a style icon, a sex symbol and a genuine oddball. Where past "angels" have been cast like bedroom-poster options for heterosexual men, Stewart plays up and down the Kinsey scale like the piano in "Great Balls of Fire," inviting long gazes from the camera and from the widest possible cross section of the audience.
Beyond Stewart, there's not much else to respond to about this rote updating of a piece of intellectual property that shouldn't have survived past a season or two in the mid-to-late 1970s. Where the two Barrymore/Diaz/Liu movies were a pulsing Cuisinart of pop culture references — the signature scene in the first set a Hong Kong-inspired fight scene against Crispin Glover to The Prodigy's rave hit "Smack My B**** Up" — writer-director Elizabeth Banks' is more like a campy, underbudgeted Mission: Impossible, full of globetrotting action that is never as lively as it needs to be. It's like an understudy's imitation of how an entertaining action movie might behave.
In this high-tech Charlie's Angels, the Charles Townsend Agency has more in common with the covert spy networks of Alias and Mission: Impossible than private detective business of the TV show. It also has multiple Bosleys to handle angels in each city, including one played by ex-NFL and Good Morning America host Michael Strahan, in case that's exciting to anyone. After a retirement party for the original Bosley (Patrick Stewart), another Bosley (Banks) assembles a team to contain a powerful, portable energy source before it can be weaponized and sold to the black market.
With the rebellious Sabina (Stewart) and ex-MI-6 agent Jane (Ella Balinska) already in place, Bosley and her team monitor Elena (Naomi Scott), a scientist-turned-whistleblower who developed an alternative energy system that could, in the wrong hands, be used as a handheld, untraceable "assassination machine." Once nefarious forces catch wind of Elena's activities, Bosley and the angels swoop in to protect her while working to contain the threat posed by her invention. Her technical know-how makes her useful for various silly undercover operations, and a quality candidate to fill out the trio permanently.
As an actress in films like Wet Hot American Summer and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Banks cut her teeth in the Judd Apatow/David Wain schools of improvisational comedies, and there's a looseness to Charlie's Angels that allows for some scribbling in the margins. The main problem is that Stewart is the only person in the cast who takes advantage, leaving scene after scene to fall flat and joke-less whenever her mischievousness trails off. Some of Banks' odder touches pay off, like Stewart and Balinska breaking out in a choreographed dance number midmission, but others are inexplicable, like a random montage of active women that serves as a transition from one sequence to the next.
Mostly, Charlie's Angels misses the opportunity to be truly eccentric by having its trio chase a MacGuffin around in stylish clothes and conspicuous costume get-ups, not unlike the TV show in double time. While distracting enough at times, the film feels more like a steppingstone in Stewart's career than a proper destination in its own right, adding a note of comic versatility to a on-screen repertoire that will be better exploited elsewhere. Her fellow angels may be seen as young stars on the rise, but the film is a custom-made catapult for her career.