More often than not, when transforming a once-popular TV series into a movie, filmmakers try to update the style, pace, and attitude of the original in order to fit the contemporary context. But as as The Mod Squad and Mission: Impossible demonstrate, such an approach can have dismal results. Happily, the new movie Charlie’s Angels does something different: instead of force-fitting the past into the present, it combines aspects of both. It adheres to the series’ premise, meaning that the Angels are hired by the unseen Charlie, they investigate cases, face danger, and always win in the end. Add a large budget for more and better explosions, a soundtrack fit for the MTV generation, and a more expensive wardrobe and you have a decent movie based on a TV series. But what really differentiates Charlie’s Angels from most converted TV shows is that it exaggerates the cultural stereotypes we have come to identify with the 1970s. Is the result profound? No. Is it fun and entertaining? Yes.
The new team is composed of Natalie (Cameron Diaz), Dylan (Drew Barrymore), and Alex (Lucy Liu), accompanied by Bosley (Bill Murray), who serves as their liaison to Charlie. The film’s self-mocking tone is evident from the start. In our first glimpse of Alex, she is flipping her hair in a grandly slow motion shot. It’s more comical than sexy, offset by the fact that the motion is so slow that it basically stops the action. Or again, LL Cool J, in a cameo appearance, groans to see T.J. Hooker: The Movie come up on an airplane movie screen in front of him. Occurring at the beginning of Charlie’s Angels, both these moments encourage the audience to view everything that follows as comedic jabs at movies based on TV shows. To underline such self-consciousness, the soundtrack includes songs that use the word “angel,” such as “Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel,” “Undercover Angel,” and Rod Stewart’s “Angel” (and tracks by popular artists like Destiny’s Child). The plot amounts to an extended episode of the TV show. The Angels are hired to retrieve Knox (Sam Rockwell), a technological whiz kid who’s been kidnapped because he would not sell his company’s technology to his main business competitor. The case is complicated by the James Bond-ian element of the villainous plan to use the stolen technology for world domination. More to the point, the film revels in its heroines’ sexuality, presenting it as both their weakness (as when one ends up in the wrong bed) and their greatest weapon. Thin and voluptuous, the Angels use sex (or the promise of it) to get what they want. Dylan, for example, wears a jumpsuit with neckline that plunges to the curvature of her breasts in order to distract a driver while Alex plants a camera on his car. They also change raced and national identities, catering to specifically sexualized stereotypes. In one moment they are posing as submissive Japanese masseurs, at another, mysterious Middle Eastern belly-dancers. And in the next, they are all dressed like Heidi of the Alps, complete with blonde hair in braids and cute little jumpers that make their body parts pop out in all the “right” places, so that they may divert their male target.
Even more compelling than these comically sexual performances is the fact that in this version of Charlie’s Angels, the girls lead double lives, with secret identities. For instance, when she’s not on a mission, Alex is an actress who lives with her actor boyfriend (Matt LeBlanc) in a trailer on a movie set and is constantly debating about whether she should reveal her secret identity as an Angel. But I’m wondering, what is her true identity? If her raced and national appearance can fluctuate so easily, then what is the difference between her life as an Angel and her life as an actress? The only consistent aspect to her identity seems to be the sexual one.
This trading of identities is a throwback to the television series. In numerous episodes, one or more of the Angels temporarily exchanges her life as an Angel with an undercover role in order to solve a case. But the movie takes the exchanging a bit further, by giving the Angels these other lives (Alex’s acting career and live-in boyfriend, for instance). The irony of the third life is that it gives you more information about the Angels but it also forces you to ask which of their lives is the real one. This confusion extends to how you might categorize Charlie’s Angels—is it a comedy or an action film? A ‘70s movie transposed to the 21st century? Or a 21st century movie trying to keep a hold on the ‘70s? In the end, I suppose two words best describe Charlie’s Angels’ efforts to achieve so many cultural facelifts: identity crisis.