Charlie's Angels (United States, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

When Charlie's Angels first hit the TV airwaves in the 1976-77 season, it was a national phenomenon. Every Wednesday night, millions of household sets would be tuned into ABC for the further adventures of the three "legs" of millionaire private investigator Charles Townsend. Although the TV program was popular across-the-board, it drew its greatest interest from two demographics: prepubescent females, who saw the Angels as strong role models, and post-pubescent males, whose interest lay in the Angels' other... ahem... assets. For five seasons, Charlie's Angels flourished before being consigned forever to rerun limbo.

The original Angels - the three best remembered by TV viewers old enough to have watched the show during its initial run - were Farrah Fawcett, Kate Jackson, and Jaclyn Smith. Of them, only Smith stayed with the show through its entire run. Fawcett, despite being inextricably linked to the program, was only on for one season. After a public salary dispute, she was replaced by Cheryl Ladd. Jackson departed after three seasons, first to be replaced by Shelly Hack for season #4, then by Tanya Roberts for season #5 when Hack failed to capture the public's interest. To date, Roberts is the only actress to have the dubious distinction of being both an Angel and a Bond girl. With all of the changes that went on during the series' five-year run, it's no surprise that, 20 years later, Charlie has a new group of Angels doing his bidding. (Plans for cameos by the original trio were scratched when Fawcett wanted a bigger role than the other two and Jackson refused to appear.)

Charlie's Angels approaches its subject matter in much the same way that The Brady Bunch Movie did. With tongue planted firmly in cheek for the entire 98-minute running length, the film simultaneously pays homage to and makes fun of the first television show to have gotten dads and daughters to bond in front of the set. Charlie's Angels is designed camp - a movie that openly acknowledges its dubious appeal and revels in it. However, unlike The Brady Bunch Movie, Charlie's Angels doesn't outstay its welcome. There's something delightfully refreshing about a brainless movie that teases audiences with jiggle and cleavage, blows up every combustible object on the screen, and gleefully overuses Matrix-style martial arts combat sequences. You'd have to be a hopeless curmudgeon not to be entertained on some juvenile level by this motion picture. It works precisely because it has no illusions about what it is or the audience whose attention it's trying to arrest.

There is a plot - not that the specifics matter much. The current group of Angels - blond Natalie (Cameron Diaz), busty Dylan (Drew Barrymore), and leather-loving Alex (Lucy Liu) - are summoned to the Townsend Detective Agency building by Bosley (Billy Murray in the role originated by the late David Doyle). There, speaking from a remote location, the disembodied Charlie (voice of John Forsythe - the only returning participant from the TV series) informs his employees about their new assignment. Their client, Vivian Wood (Kelly Lynch), has suffered a catastrophic loss - her best friend and boss, the genius behind Knox Electronics, has been kidnapped, presumably by his chief rival, the dastardly Roger Corwin (Tim Curry). The Angels are to save Knox (Sam Rockwell) and recover the stolen technology Corwin has hidden deep in an ultra-secret vault. There are, of course, obstacles (too numerous to mention), the most dangerous of which is a silent, unbalanced killer, played with single-minded determination by the always-loopy Crispin Glover.

It's hard to say whether Charlie's Angels contains more action scenes or flashes of flesh. Regardless, both are present in abundance. For the latter, there are numerous shots of Barrymore and Diaz with plunging necklines and undone buttons. We see the three stripping off wetsuits, but only from the back and only to a point (this is, after all, a PG-13 movie). Finally, in a scene that will have teenage boys everywhere using the stop-motion control on the DVD player when the movie arrives on disc, Barrymore takes a nude tumble down a hillside - although she's moving a little too fast and the light is a little too dim for us to make out anything clearly. As for the fight scenes, of which there are nearly a dozen, all borrow heavily from The Matrix (with an occasional nod to more traditional martial arts moves). The Angels leap incredible distances into the air, landing with spine-crushing force on their opponents' chests, then dodge the occasional speeding bullet. This sort of overblown combat is fun to watch, although it pales in comparison with the breathtaking lengths to which director Ang Lee takes it in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Still, this visceral fun makes for edible eye candy.

The film's director, making his feature debut, goes by the moniker of "McG" (short for Joseph McGinty Mitchell). He pumps up the visual and audio volume, making Charlie's Angels a kinetic experience, even during the few "slow" sequences. His approach, arguably perfect for music videos, works with this material because of its nature. Fast cuts and visual jokes (such as the "hair flip") work in a movie like this; they might be distracting in something of a more serious nature. His choice of music is intriguing, mixing '70s songs (most with the word "angel" in the title: "Angel of the Morning", "Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel", "Undercover Angel") and '00 heavy metal into a soundtrack that never gears down.

Fortunately, the actors are all in synch with the material. None of them tries to play things too seriously or too broadly. Barrymore, in addition to being one of the driving forces behind getting the movie made, is arguably the most luminous of the stars. Diaz borrows liberally from her There's Something About Mary character, although she appears (for lack of a better term) a little washed out. Liu, who reportedly was the cause of on-set tension, is at her best when playing the part of a dominatrix disciplining a room full of sun-deprived engineers. As Bosley, Bill Murray's talents are underused, but this isn't Bosley and the Angels. Tim Curry and Crispin Glover fit perfectly into this kind of cast, with Kelly Lynch, Luke Wilson, Sam Rockwell, and Tom Green (a.k.a. Mr. Drew Barrymore) filling out the roster.

Feminists have always debated the merits of Charlie's Angels - whether it deals in female exploitation or empowerment. This movie certainly isn't going to resolve the issue, since there's plenty of both going on. It is enjoyable, however, to encounter an action movie where the heroes are all female (a rare breed, indeed). Ultimately, however, Charlie's Angels is far too light to promote any sort of serious or introspective discussion - and rightfully so. Anything else would have been a disappointment and a waste. The movie is exactly what it needs to be to succeed: trashy, dumb, and flashy - in short, one of the guiltiest pleasures to reach multiplexes this year.

Charlie's Angels (United States, 2000)

Run Time: 1:38
U.S. Release Date: 2000-11-03
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Violence, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1