Thursday, August 17, 2017


by Patrick Bromley
A movie both totally of its time and way ahead of it.

Here are a couple of things that amazed me when I rewatched 2000's big-screen adaptation of the '70s TV series Charlie's Angels: 1) This movie is almost 20 years old. 2) It's still talked about by most movie sites I see online primarily in the context of being a "guilty pleasure." 3) That it still works as well as it does.

This is a movie that should be pretty terrible. TV-to-film adaptations have a pretty low success rate -- for every Fugitive, there are two or three Car 54, Where Are You?s -- and the source material is the kind of silly, played-straight camp that could only exist in the '70s. The director is Joseph McGinty Nichol, former music video director making his feature film debut and a man who willfully goes by the name "McG." It's a movie I remember going to see on opening day in 2000 because it was the big new release and because I liked a lot of the actors, but I'll admit that the trailers and subsequent marketing blitz had my expectations low. That the movie is as much fun as it is was such a pleasant surprise.
Wisely eschewing any kind of origin story bullshit, the film version of Charlie's Angels begins with the three private investigators already working as a team (and, as the very entertaining opening credits demonstrate, having had a series of wacky adventures behind them). There's brainy but goofy Natalie (Cameron Diaz), tough tomboy Dylan (Drew Barrymore) and icy cool perfectionist Alex (Lucy Liu), all working for an unseen man named Charlie (voiced by John Forsythe, who played the same character on the show) and his assistant Bosley (Bill Murray). The girls are hired to a missing software genius (Sam Rockwell, stealing scenes) but things quickly take a turn for the worse when (spoiler) it's revealed that Rockwell is the villain working alongside leather-clad Kelly Lynch and a creepy, silent assassin (played by a brilliantly cast Crispin Glover). Punches are thrown! Songs are played! Outfits are worn!

Earlier this summer, I went to see the big-screen adaptation of Baywatch, still the worst movie I saw in theaters this year so far. There are enough things wrong with the movie to fill a book, but one of my main issues is that the filmmakers involved never bothered to have a point of view on the material, instead choosing to play it straight, pretend it's awesome and talk down to it all the same time. I have no idea how the Baywatch movie actually feels about Baywatch and it cripples the film. This is not the case with Charlie's Angels, which is very clearly celebrated by everyone from the cast to director McG to the team of screenwriters that includes heavy hitters like Ed Solomon (of the Bill & Ted movies and Men in Black fame) and John August (Go, The Nines). They recognize the whole enterprise as goofy fun and then lean way, way into that goofy fun. The result is a movie that's like critical teflon. Think it's stupid? Of course it is! But try watching it without smiling. Try watching it without being entertained.
There are the obvious signifiers that this movie is a product of the year 2000, like the Matt LeBlanc cameo or when Tom Green shows up to remind you that he and co-star/producer Drew Barrymore were, at the time, a celebrity couple for reasons that remain impossible to understand. His unique gift at that time was to appear in things and stop them cold, a streak he does not break here. There's some obnoxious use of wire-fu fight scenes, a new staple of the action genre just one year removed from The Matrix. The effect often makes Charlie's Angels feel like a live-action cartoon, which hurt it at the time but now carries a stylization that's unique to this movie. I'm not saying I love it, but it is specific to Charlie's Angels.

What I do love about the fight scenes in the movie, choreographed by Cheung-Yan Yuen and coordinated/shot by the great Vic Armstrong, is just how much of the actors we get to see on camera. This was always the case with martial arts movies and action stars, but really started to become a trend with regular movie stars post-Matrix and has carried on through Tom Cruise clearly performing stunts in the Mission: Impossible series and even to Charlize Theron in this summer's Atomic Blonde. There is a different kind of buy-in we action fans have when we can see the actors working really hard to perform their own fight scenes, and while there is some obvious stunt doubling taking place in a handful of scenes, there are also great pains taken to have the actors do the fighting themselves and play the choreography out in longer takes. Diaz, Liu, Barrymore, Glover and Lynch obviously trained for the fight scenes and it pays off. I even like how each of the Angels has a different fighting style; I'm partial to Drew Barrymore's, not just because she's my favorite Angel but because her character is a brawler. Her fights are less refined than the others, but she throws fists and punches people like she means it.
In so many ways, Charlie's Angels is a movie that should be celebrated even more in 2017 than it was 2000, when it opened to generally favorable reviews and almost $300 million at the box office. I remember writing a paper in grad school many years ago having something to do with female representation in genre movies (#original #woke) and reading a quote from critic Michael Sragow of The Baltimore Sun that read “In Charlie’s Angels, feminism is defined as letting women bounce around like idiots in stripper costumes, but they own their idiocy, so they’re liberated and empowered." That quote has stuck with me for nearly 15 years because of that line about "owning their idiocy," a phrase that has always struck me as horribly dismissive and anti-feminist for a writer who is clearly trying to argue that Charlie's Angels offers the "wrong" kind of feminism. Maybe this kind of thinking was much more acceptable back in 2000, when our notions of what a strong female character could be in an action movie was more along the lines of Ripley or Sarah Connor or Trinity in The Matrix. Charlie's Angels turns that idea on its head by having female characters who are super tough and kick all the ass but who also cosplay in hot outfits and celebrate being sexy. They don't own their idiocy. They own their sexuality, only it doesn't define them any more than their physicality does.

I know that it's probably stupid and dangerous for me to speak to ideas of feminism because you may very well be reading this and thinking "yes, dummy, that's what it's always been..." but if I'm taking temperature of mainstream popular culture, I do feel like our notions of what it means to be a "strong" female character on film has changed over the last two decades. What was dismissed as reductive and exploitative in 2000 is now better understood as part of the whole spectrum of womanhood. This is not me mansplaining feminism, which I would never presume to do. This is me revisiting Charlie's Angels and recognizing that in 2017, I suspect it would be welcomed in much the same way that Wonder Woman was earlier this year. No, Wonder Woman didn't flaunt her sexuality the way these characters do (and when they do, it's always for the purpose of exploiting the weakness of men). But that's a choice the character makes, just as it's a choice the Angels make. The choice means everything.
I remember being far less enamored by the sequel, 2003's Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, because it felt like most sequels in that it was repetitive but "bigger" in every way, losing the surprise factor that engendered such goodwill towards the original. But I also haven't seen it in over a decade, and maybe my feelings about it will have changed. As it stands, Charlie's Angels is terrific, sugary pop art -- the kind of movie we're told we should feel shame for liking but for which I refuse to be shamed. It remains McG's best film, with some nice directorial flourishes (like the long take through an airplane cabin that opens the film or the "instant replay" that explains how a character survives being shot out a window) and the right kind of energy, tone and color for this project. It's not often talked about in conversations about action movies -- not even female-driven action movies, a list dominated by the likes of The Long Kiss Goodnight and Haywire and La Femme Nikita and now Mad Max: Fury Road -- which I still think is because of the stigma that it's not meant to be taken seriously. These women are too sexy and having too much fun to be badass action heroes! But that's bullshit, of course. The joy of action cinema is in watching the actors move on screen. Charlie's Angels is a movie entirely about joy of movement. If you think it's just about watching idiots bounce around in stripper costumes, well, I've got bad news about who the real idiot is.


  1. Ah, Charlie's Angels, the one with the badly pronounced Finnish.

    In that one scene where the Angels are speaking in "code", that's actually Finnish. And yes, it is really badly pronounced, to the point that I don't think I recognized it as Finnish on my first watch.

  2. Future suggestion: Executive Decision (1996)!

  3. And Sam Rockwell was such a babe! Ok let me rewatch that shake and bake scene...
    Drew Barrymore is so cute. She can't keep from smiling in every scene no matter what is happening. I saw this movie a billion times when it was on my sister's replay rotation for years. Dylan was my favorite Angel then but now, years later and a decade something older, Natalie is definitely my fav, which I did not foresee. Now I can't really imagine being happy or getting away with being like Dylan in real life, but Natalie, yes.

    I really like what they did with the music in this movie. They madr all their scenes so memorable with it.

    Remember Angelina Jolie action movies around the same time? Her "too cool to be feminine or vulnerable" vibe always made me - and still makes me- roll my eyes. Blah. She was never fun. Anyway I agree, I think we've come a long way since those days and it shows in WW. Idk about others but that felt to me like an action movie FOR women, not just about them. Somehow it was such a relief, like they FINALLY got something right.

    I always liked Charlie's Angels, but this article makes me appreciate it more :) cheeeers