PopMatters Film and TV Editor
You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Drew Barrymore moonwalking to “Billie Jean.” This isn’t to say that you absolutely need to run out to see Charlie’s Angels, but it’s a good reason to think about doing so. As Dylan, the troubled-tough-girl member of this big screen version of Charlie’s famous TV/T&A squad, Barrymore brings her usual energy and edge, as well as her Hollywood-veteran’s muscle (she co-produced the movie with her Flower Films partner Nancy Juvonen). She also brings her signature good humor (as demonstrated in her frankly terrible moonwalk), her ex-boyfriend (Luke Wilson, playing a very pleasant bartender), and her current fiance, Tom Green, playing Dylan’s tugboat captain boyfriend, Chad. Or, as Chad refers to himself, “The Chad,” as in his plaintive query when she departs abruptly after receiving a mysterious phone call: worried that she’s leaving him because of his own poor performance, Chad whines, “Was it The Chad?”
Of course, the reason for her departure is not The Chad, it’s The Charlie (John Forsythe repeating his invisible man role from the tv series), calling on His Angels to perform yet another impossible mission. Red-tressed Dylan’s partners in derring-do are blond Natalie (Cameron Diaz) and raven-haired Alex (Lucy Liu), each useful in her own way. Sweet Nat’s a bit dingy; brainy Alex tends to be stern and Sabrina-ish (Kate Jackson’s character on the tv series); and Dylan, well, she’s just an archetypal bad girl in her introductory flashback, she looks real surly in her prison uniform. All the Angels can, of course, kick and karate chop like nobody’s business, and all are remarkably adept with their many high tech gadgets (minus guns the Angels adamantly and politically work without them). A preliminary mini-escapade establishes their supreme in-chargeness, not to mention their extraordinary fashion sense. They’re tracking a villain who’s on his way out of town with his stolen goods, seated on a plane unfortunately for him next to the imposing LL Cool J (and if you’ve seen the trailer, you know good sport LL is really playing a Mission-Impossible-ish disguise for one of the girls). The Angels proceed to get the crook off the plane and take plummeting through the atmosphere sans parachutes (in a sleek black jumpsuit, Alex gets to do that cool shoot-through-the-air-like-a-human-bullet routine), and then land him in a speedboat, driven by a radiant, bikini-clad Natalie.
The movie is full of such James Bondish excitement, as well as elaborate martial arts (digitally enhanced and choreographed by The Matrix coordinator, Cheung-Yan Yuen), well-cast supporting players (including Bill Murray as Bosley and Crispin Glover as the sinister Thin Man), and much adorable girl-bonding. So what if the actual plot is ridiculous in conception and most of its execution? The basics go something like this: a stereotypically wussy software billionaire, Eric Knox (Sam Rockwell, last seen abusing mice in The Green Mile), has been kidnapped, and his company’s shady president, Vivian Wood (Kelly Lynch), hires the Charles Townsend Agency to retrieve him, along with some stolen secret voice-identification software, which, in the wrong hands, will surely cause worldwide destruction. Charlie sends the Angels after a nefarious and charismatic suspect, Roger Corwin (Tim Curry). While undercover at a swank party, the Angels spot Thin Man (who apparently works for Corwin) and chase him down a back stairway, tossing their girly garments as they go, so that by the time they catch Thin Man and engage in the inevitable tussle, they’re wearing appropriately audacious black leather and spandex. Voila! Ready for another spectacular action scene!
Blah blah blah they retrieve Knox, go after the software, find themselves betrayed and fight their way out of a carefully orchestrated situation, so that each Angel has her very own nemesis to beat down, the most flat-footed being Liu’s encounter with Glover and the most fun being Barrymore’s outsmarting a slew of cocky brutes, using the chair she’s tied to as a weapon. Directed by music video dynamo McG (he’s worked with Wyclef, Korn, Smashmouth, and, um, Mase), the film maintains a good-natured, nonsensical speediness while skipping blithely over its narrative voids. And this seems a reasonable strategy for what the film is: a po-mo sample movie that looks pretty good and that borrows liberally from any number of sources, including a house where Dylan (naked and running for her life) must seek refuge, surprising two young boys watching TV this is the very house where 8-year-old Drew filmed E.T. so very long ago.
As pleasant as it is to watch a movie that’s so clever and cheerily ironic and it is surprisingly pleasant it might be worth asking what’s at stake for the Angels in 2000. Are they ass-kicking role models, Nokia spokesmodels, or what? On her press campaign for the movie, Barrymore has developed her own definitional mantra: the Angels are capable as well as beautiful, they’re not afraid to flip their hair. And it’s true, like their TV predecessors, these girls are proudly self-parodic, with more expensive FX and less time to establish their friends-till-the-end camaraderie (which, on tv, was never true anyway, with all the Angel turnovers). They’re very nice and self-mocking superheroes, like the Spice Girls with martial arts training, not so angsty as the X-Men or so brooding as the Mod Squadders. (Okay, they misstep occasionally: Dylan sleeps with the wrong guy and pays for it, but she survives to return to her true love and reassure him that “The Chad was great!” The totally in-love and grateful look on Tom Green’s face at this moment is almost worth the price of admission.) You could say that the Angels are the exemplary non-threatening, multi-culti millennial-year poster girls. As much as they’re obviously making fun of the familiar sexed-up conventions they embody, they also don’t appear to be conceding much ground on the “chicks-can-do-it-too” front. They can look as fine as Keanu Reeves flying through digital air with legs swinging (and Diaz can play white as easily as Reeves), and their jokes are as preemptive as the next guy’s (our non-man LL groans when he sees T. J. Hooker, The Movie on the plane).
What’s more, the Angels are quite hip to their own socio-political environment. Their angelic perkiness is most often underlined by completely bubbly soundtrack choices “Angel of the Morning” to mark their perpetual dewiness; “Turning Japanese” when they’re undercover in an Asian massage parlor; Blur’s “Song 2” or Heart’s “Barracuda” when they need some adrenaline pumping; Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Women (Part 1)” when they’re at a fast food drive-in (let’s imagine this as a comment on “crass commercialism”). But a couple of songs are manifestly aggressive, even obnoxious, choices Pharoahe Monch’s “Simon Says” (the clip omits lines like “Rub on your titties!”) or Prodigy’s once-controversial “Smack My Bitch Up” during a relatively brutal fight scene. And there it is: smacking your bitch up needn’t be cause for uproar when said bitch’s identity is in question: Cameron Diaz or Crispin Glover? (You decide.) And this does seem the film’s most profound point, that eventually, everything that might once be deemed offensive from ‘70s network jiggle to ‘90s MTV outrage is grist for the mainstream mill.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/charlies-angels/