Here’s a nice little surprise (if a $90 million movie can be called “little”). I went to Charlie’s Angels expecting to smirk through the whole thing; I didn’t expect to smile through it, but I did. To be sure, the movie will neither change the course of cinema nor move it forward one inch, but that’s not what it’s built for. Charlie’s Angels is a radiantly dopey Saturday-night escape hatch, without a thought in its head except to tickle you until you give in. You either go along for the ride or you don’t; I got on board fairly early and was happy to stay on.
Awkward geekette Natalie (Cameron Diaz), former punk Dylan (Drew Barrymore), and no-nonsense Alex (Lucy Liu) are the new, stylish Angels for the millennium, updates of the heroines of the critically reviled ’70s TV series. Like their forebears, the new trio work for the unseen Charlie (John Forsythe returns as the speakerphone voice) and thwart globe-threatening criminals with the help of their bewildered caretaker Bosley (a droll Bill Murray, keeping himself and us amused). Their mission involves a decadent tycoon (Tim Curry), a software whiz (Sam Rockwell), some technology that spells “the end of privacy” if it falls into the wrong hands, and, of course, a good amount of revealing and/or clinging outfits.
Never having followed the TV show, I assume a large percent of its appeal lay in its contriving to get its actresses in situations wherein their clothes were wet or scanty, or both. The movie does the same thing, but here it’s presented as another tool the Angels can use — distracting men with their babe-osity while planting a recording device or breaking into a computer room as impregnable as the one in Mission: Impossible. They also get to go through a variety of exotic disguises (sometimes exotic in the other direction — the scene of Barrymore and Diaz in male drag is pretty weird). I accepted the movie as a lighter-than-air girl-power adventure.
It helps that these Angels are gifted comedians. Diaz in particular breaks out; this is really her first funny performance (rather than being the straight woman in movies like There’s Something About Mary). Her Natalie fantasizes about knocking ’em dead on the dance floor (she so enjoys her dreams about it that she giggles in her sleep), and when she finally gets to show off her moves, the script puts a goofy spin on it while allowing Natalie to lose herself in her geek rhapsody. Lucy Liu gets a hilarious ball-busting scene posing as a sort of dominatrix/corporate consultant (“When was the last time you suggested something to your boss?” she demands of a roomful of terrified, fascinated programmers while wielding a cane), and Barrymore gets a neat tied-to-a-chair scene augmented by up-to-the-minute stuntwork.
The stunts, by the way, may remind you of the gravity-defying battles in The Matrix (though they have a lighter, more over-the-top touch here). That might be because the stunt coordinator here, Yuen Cheung-Yan, is the brother of The Matrix’s stunt guru Yuen Wo-Ping. The director, a rock-video vet who goes by the name McG (given name: Joseph McGinty Nichol), stages both the action and the sight gags so that we can process and appreciate them; he keeps this machine humming along pleasantly — it’s a clean, fast-paced, playful piece of work. It’s a strange movie year indeed when some guy named McG assembles a more entertaining spy caper than the master John Woo did with the brooding, boring Mission: Impossible 2.
Charlie’s Angels is by no means flawless. Tim Curry isn’t around enough; Tom Green, as Dylan’s creepy boyfriend, has two scenes — two scenes too many, some will say, including me. Yet there’s always something to look or laugh at, and any big Hollywood movie that can make room for the eccentricities of Sam Rockwell (fast becoming an actor to watch), Kelly Lynch (too little seen lately — she appears as Rockwell’s software partner), Luke Wilson as Diaz’ love interest, and especially Crispin Glover as a mute assassin with fussy thin eyebrows, certainly deserves better than some critics are handing it. What do they expect? It’s Charlie’s Angels. I expected less and got more, which might be a useful approach to action spectacles as we leave the ’90s behind.