By Owen Gleiberman
Updated November 10, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

In Charlie’s Angels, Drew Barrymore, as the buxom, red-haired Dylan, the cuddliest in a trio of ultra-babe private investigators, is roped to a chair, facing half a dozen henchmen who look poised to take extremely nasty advantage of her. As the brutes advance, and as her tied-up hands secretly fiddle with a cigarette lighter, she stalls them — by sticking her legs, clad in long black pants, right into the air, cocking them open like a V (presumably for victory rather than virgin). Holy PG-13 flash! The men stop and gawk, instinctively halted by the vision of a weapon far superior to their own. After taunting them a bit more, Drew stands up in her chair and proceeds to bash, twirl, and leap, demolishing her foes, then adding, as the coup de grâce, a sweetly gung-ho ”And that’s kickin’ your ass!” It is indeed.

Anyone in pursuit of foxy, low-down fun at the movies used to have a choice between good trash and bad trash. Now there’s good trash, bad trash, and snazzy postmodern trash — high-octane turbo-piffle that acknowledges, and winks at, its ”sophisticated” superficiality, seducing you with its MTV-age assault merge of eye candy, action, attitude. If you want humanity, go to a video store and rent one of those movies from, like, the 20th century. If you want synthetically merry James Bond-meets-girl-power kicks, go to see Charlie’s Angels, a fizzy, fashion-deep, tongue-in-cheek thriller that’s perhaps the first motion picture to make beating the unholy crap out of bad guys as adorable as it is exciting.

The movie reconstitutes the bare bones of the tacky yet revolutionary Aaron Spelling TV series, which ran from 1976-81. Like the characters on the show, bubblicious Natalie (Cameron Diaz), poker-faced Alex (Lucy Liu), and elfin Dylan (Barrymore) are a luscious trio of hothouse-chicklet undercover agents who work for Charlie, a daddy/deity mystery boss who communicates entirely by speaker phone — a radical concept for the age of Jimmy Carter. Back then, the notion of scantily clad pinup crime fighters parading their hot bods, feathered locks, and perfect teeth through the glare of prime time carried such a blatant cheesecake charge that the show, even as it celebrated its heroines’ weekly victories, seemed to be ridiculing the pretense that they were anything more than glassy-eyed human dress-up dolls. In a strange way, the entire thrust of Charlie’s Angels as a pop phenomenon came down to Farrah Fawcett-Majors’ hair. Long, tawny, and iron-curled, with each strand utterly done, the legendary mane, which appeared to be as luscious and creamy as sex itself, gave her the image of a hippie porn star who had suddenly been made untouchably expensive. It was the first seismic meeting of the sexual revolution and the consumer culture — the true birth, years ahead of its time, of the InStyle era.

In the movie, all that faintly exploitative strut and jiggle has been turned on its head. Natalie, Alex, and Dylan are boy-crazy girly-girls who go through more costume/identity changes than Barbie and RuPaul combined, but the outfit hopping doesn’t demean them; it fulfills them. It’s now a triumphant gag that when they’re receiving orders from Charlie or playfully ribbing Bosley (Bill Murray), his acerbic lieutenant and go-between, their banal enthusiastic chitchat has almost no personality, but when they pose as a yodeling-telegram trio of jailbait German maidens in lederhosen, all to get a global hotshot’s retinal impression, they’re so knowing in the lustrous self-mockery of their disguise that the joke isn’t on them. It’s on the entire world of men who can instantly be brought to their knees by the grand mirage of a pretty girl striking a pose.

The three Angels are hired to investigate the kidnapping of a wealthy computer techno-nerd, played by Sam Rockwell (showing sexy new force as an actor), who turns out to be not quite the puppy he seems. The post-Bondian twists and turns make M:I-2 look like Aeschylus, yet Charlie’s Angels, as directed by the veteran music-video wizard who bills himself as McG (how’s that for a new-millennium fast-food-entertainment moniker?), has been cleverly mapped out so that nearly every encounter — and some whiz by as quickly as sports-car commercials — hinges on a different use-your-illusion ruse. The film is a glittering junk pile of disguises, high-flying stunts, and low-camp romantic ”episodes,” and what holds it all together is the irresistible moxie of its three stars, who appear, even in the most precarious of circumstances, to be having the time of their lives.

Barrymore has become a true comedienne-flirt, as innocently knowing as Monroe, and Lucy Liu, as the sternest of the three, has a great moment in which she parades through an office like a CEO dominatrix, making grateful slaves of her corporate drones. But Charlie’s Angels is finally Cameron Diaz’s movie. Her Natalie has a heart as insecure as her body is smokin’, and the splendor of Diaz is the way those two sides meet in her sun-dappled smile; it says, ”I’ll melt for you — if you can handle me!” The film’s highlight has nothing to do with defeating criminals. It’s when Natalie, out with a doting bartender (Luke Wilson), takes the stage at Soul Train and starts to gyrate, with go-go exuberance, to the music. She’s a white girl trying to be ”funky,” utterly failing at it, and then, when you look again, succeeding because her radiance has made her as funky asshe thinks she is. That’s not just an Angel — that’s a star. B

Charlie's Angels

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 92 minutes
  • McG