Most reboots are meaningless (time to rev that franchise back up!). But the new “Charlie’s Angels,” whether it turns out to be a glittering hit or the latest expensive package to get tossed by the audience onto the trash heap of franchise fatigue, feels like a generational rite of passage. The original “Charlie’s Angels,” which premiered in 1976, was a cheeseball ABC-TV sensation that featured the novelty of a trio of female action crime fighters — but the hook was the look, especially Farrah Fawcett’s erotic-waterfall hair, which became an ultimate icon of ’70s eye candy. At the movies 25 years later, “Charlie’s Angels” (2000) and “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” (2003) crystallized the vanguard of a woman-action-heroine revolution, but the trick of the two movies — and the source of their considerable confectionary pizzazz — is that Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, and Lucy Liu came on as pinwheeling invincibles who liked playing dress-up. They were badass and girly-girl at the same time and had so much fun ricocheting between those roles that it lent the films a killer-doll-in-flight kinetic fizz.
The opening sequence of the new “Charlie’s Angels” teases our memories of those films by presenting Sabina (Kristen Stewart), a veteran Angel who’s up for anything, in a long blonde wig as she pretends (though not too much) to be charmed by the mansplaining ways of Jonny (Chris Pang), a filthy-rich gangster tycoon in Rio. Her seduction, which morphs into a balletic act of asphyxiation, is a double charade: Sabina is a secret agent posing as a sex bomb, but this is also the film’s way of tweaking our expectation that she and her fellow Angels are going to be like the shiny happy whoop-ass-with-a-grin heroines of the last two films.
As it turns out, this is not your mother’s — or even your big sister’s — “Charlie’s Angels.” It’s an undercover fantasy about agents who take their whoop-ass seriously. The new movie crossbreeds the relentlessness of a “Bourne” thriller with the tossed-off trickiness of a “Mission: Impossible” caper, all of it written and directed, by Elizabeth Banks, as if she’d been making cheeky renegade action films all her life.
The movie is relentless, it’s pulpy and exciting, it’s unabashedly derivative, and at an hour and 58 minutes it’s a little too much of a rousingly of-the-moment feministic but still rather standard-issue thing. The new “Charlie’s Angels” is a heavier chunk of escape than any previous “Angels” incarnation — if the early-2000s films were pop, this one is metal. Yet that’s part of its timely appeal. Sabina and her comrades are mean warriors of corporate espionage who may, at times, disguise themselves in sequin tube dresses, but they have no interest in pretending to be cute. What, then, qualifies them as Angels, apart from the fact that they’re women who work for someone named Charlie? It’s all in the spontaneity of their action reactions. They’re still clawing their way through a man’s world, and to succeed they have to both fight it and go with the flow of it.
On the eve of the retirement of John Bosley (Patrick Stewart), the gimlet-eyed Angels founder and mentor who has created an entire corps of Bosleys, notably…uh, Bosley (played by Banks, who comes on like Parker Posey with more hostility), Sabina, in her stylishly chopped two-tone hair and her two-tone attitude (now ironic, now lethal), is joined in Hamburg, Germany, by her fellow Angel, a British spitfire named Jane (Ella Balinska), to look after Elena (Naomi Scott), who’s in dire need of protection. She’s a security engineer at Brok Industries who tried and failed to warn the company’s chief executive, Alexander Brok (San Claflin), that his new product, a revolutionary crystal that creates electric power, has a built-in flaw: It can all too easily be weaponized. (It can cause fatal strokes, allowing for untraceable assassinations.)
Elena has turned whistleblower, and we learn how dangerous that is when she meets Jane in a coffee shop, where Hodak (Jonathan Tucker), a hitman with a tattoo sprouting from his neck like a fungus (he’s like a punk version of Robert Patrick in “T2”), takes out a gun and starts to fire. The car chase that follows is ace car-chase filmmaking — breathless and ultra-violent, with big mounted weapons — and it establishes this as the first “Charlie Angel’s” thriller that Jason Statham would feel right at home in. Yet if the movie has a surprising amount of slam-bang in its DNA, it also has room for an intricate, improvised-as-the-characters-go-along caper sequence in which Sabina, Jane, and Elena (who’s not only being shielded by the Angels, she’s becoming one) scurry through the Brok building to steal the crystal, wearing bowl-cut wigs and lab coats that render them identical. So there is a bit of dress-up, though here it takes off from the impish ingenuity of the Magritte climax of the 1999 version of “The Thomas Crown Affair.”
From there, it’s on to Istanbul and an awesomely elaborate action sequence that unfolds in a quarry. The film, however, still has time to make a pit stop at the Angels’ hideaway, where a gentle bearded Euro assistant named Saint (Luis Gerardo Méndez) looks after them by serving up everything from home-made kombucha to Buddhist therapy to the gentle re-socketing of a dislocated rib. He’s like Q in the Bond films gone woke, and that makes him, in his way, a pure embodiment of the film’s 21st-century feminine mystique.
Kristen Stewart stepped off the merry-go-round of mainstream blockbusters after the last “Twilight” film, though in the seven years since her star has only risen. Or maybe it’s just that now that she’s 29, it glitters all the more intensely. As Sabina, Stewart exudes a flashing-eyed magnetism that brushes her moodier mannerisms aside, yet she hasn’t let go of the thing they express — her need to survey every situation. In “Charlie’s Angels,” she’s a spy who’s spying on everyone in the room, even her comrades. Ella Balinska infuses Jane with a high command, though it’s not as if she’s all imperious poses. It’s part of the film’s brashness that she can take a moment, in the middle of a heist, to pour condiments on the sandwich of an adorable-hunk lab assistant (Noah Centineo) and then take a flirtatious bite. And Naomi Scott, as Elena, has a playful sensual curiosity that makes you think of Sarah Michelle Gellar. The movie works because these three ooze personality without resorting to quirks.
It also works because Elizabeth Banks, having graduated from the “Pitch Perfect” series, proves herself to be a filmmaker who can stage fireworks with extreme flair. The plot of “Charlie’s Angels” turns on a series of reversals and double-crosses that Banks juggles with propulsive agility. She also elicits a sensational performance from the actor who plays the supreme villain. He hits a note of dastardly Machiavellian panache that brings life to the film’s cartoon vision of three Angels taking down the patriarchy, one strike-a-pose masquerade and forearm smash at a time.