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CHARLIE'S ANGELS

A really bad idea yields a really great movie.

By Steve Biodrowski     November 02, 2000

Certain films seem to be made as proof that any idea, no matter how bad, can yield excellent results if handled right. In the case of Charlie's Angels, the idea is double-bad: the three-babes-as-detectives was a lousy premise for a silly television show, and remaking that show into a feature film was an equally fool-hardy decision. And yet, somehow, the result is the most awesome amusing, staggeringly fun, exciting, adventurous, and action-packed film of the year. This film single-handedly outdoes the latest Mission Impossible, Austin Powers, and James Bond films combined: it's a no-brainer action flick blissfully unburdened by misguided attempts at serious characterization, and the sheer exuberance of the stunt and fight choreography, coupled with engaging performances and an over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek attitude, make this so joyful that only the most pretentious pseudo-intellectual could walk of the theatre without feeling absolutely entertained.

What went right with a project that portended to be dead on arrival? Well, it's easier to acknowledge greatness than to explain it, but two things come to mind. The first is that the film of Charlie's Angels sets out to embrace the silliness that the series simply ignored. The tele-version was the ultimate in lowest common denominator programming: put three beautiful women on the screen, and men will tune in, no matter how lame the writing, directing, acting, and production values are. In effect, quality was irrelevant to the equation for the show's success. The film, on the other hand, realizes that the premise of three gorgeous women acting as private eyes for an unseen boss heard only on the telephone, is the stuff of high camp. With no credibility to begin with, the filmmaker realized they had nothing to lose, so they went as far as they could with the idea, stretching the boundaries of reality in order to deliver outrageous action, clever dialogue, and a bare minimal plot that exists purely and unashamedly to tie the set pieces together. Thus, they get away with stuff that could never exist in a 'serious' film, because it would destroy the tone; this creates a tremendous freedom for throwing anything and everything at the audience, who are more than willing to accept it, because the film has more or less tacitly told them, 'This is all a lark, so sit back and enjoy.' (Austin Powers II took a similar tack, but literally voiced these sentiments to the audiencea sign, perhaps, that the filmmakers were afraid they need to clue their audience in to what the film was attempting).

The other possible explanation that comes to mind for the film's success is the obvious Hong Kong influence (by way of The Matrix, of course, which once and for all proved the U.S. audience will indeed enjoy all that fantastic, flying-through-the-air martial arts action). In particular, Charlie's Angels seems to have been almost as much inspired by the Heroic Trio films as by its namesake television series. The two films (both directed by Ching Tsui Tung) featured a trio of beautiful women (including Michelle Yeoh, who went on to star in Tomorrow Never Dies) who battled evil with impossible martial arts skill, executing leaps, flips, and kicks that defied gravity and most of the other laws of physics as well. Although somewhat darker in tone than Charlie's Angels, their lineage is clear in the one-darn-thing-after-another, anything-can-happen approach adopted by the new film.

The plot could scarcely be more simple: the Angels (Drew Barrymore, Lucy Liu, and Cameron Diaz) are called in to find the kidnapped inventor of a new voice-identification software system. A trail of too-obvious clues leads them to him in no time at all, but there's more to the story: his stolen technology, when combined with the satellite system of his arch business rival, could pose a threat to privacy, allowing anyone's voice to be traced in this day of mass electronic communications. The Angels infiltrate the offices of the suspected kidnapper and tap into his computer system to look for traces of the stolen technology, but then another question arises: Was the technology really stolen, or was the whole kidnapping just a set-up to finesse the Angels into cracking the rival's computer?

But this description does poor justice to the entertainment value of the film. What makes it work is the verve with which it is executed. This film has the greatest martial arts scenes ever in an American movienot in terms of real martial arts, mind you, but in terms of orchestrated excess. Put together with special effects, stunt doubles, and editing, the scenes are pure fantasyrather like action ballets. Within the first half hour, there is a brilliant four-way fight between the Angles and the 'Thin Man,' a silent assassin played with surprisingly malevolent intensity by Crispin Glover (that's right, the guy who played Michael J. Fox's dad in the Back to the Future movies and tried to kick David Letterman on The Late Show). You won't believe your eyes, but then the film doesn't expect you to: it just piles on more and more wire work, stunts, and special effects until you just about have to cheer and applaud. At this point, you start to realize, this is the kind of movie that makes you love going to movies, that inspires people to want to make movies. Amazingly, this elaborate set piece is only the beginning. The rest of the film continues apace with chase scenes, explosions, shoot outs, and fights, each one exceeding its predecessor, until the film finally contrives a rematch at the conclusion. It's a game of 'can you top this,' and the film wins every time.

All the cast are having a good time, and it shows. Without getting bogged down, the film even manages to distinguish the three leads fairly well. (The Diaz character, for example, is portrayed as thoroughly competent at work but more than slightly flighty in her personal life, which allows for lots of humor.) Barrymore, Diaz, and Liu are easy to watch, and the film gives them ample opportunity to go undercover and appear in a variety of guisesjust the kind of thing actors love, because it lets them ham it up to good effect. The supporting cast is a blast as well. Bill Murray, in the almost thankless role of Bosley, has to play comic relief in a film that is already a comedy, but somehow he makes it work. Kelly Lynch makes an excellent contrast to the leading ladies as the client who may not be all she seems. And Glover is really excellent in a nearly mute performance, molded entirely out of elaborate gestures, facial expressions, and stagy poses and postures.

No name director McG scores big with his first film, working from a script crafted by multiple writers (including Ed Solomon of Men in Black). All the technical credits and production design combine to create a wonderful confectionary. The visual stylization of the action, with freeze frame and 'bullet time' effects, is obviously reminiscent of The Matrix, but Charlie's Angels makes no attempt to compete with that film in terms of intelligence and originality. Fortunately, it doesn't need to. Pure simple fun is all this film needs to deliver, and that's what it does, more than we had any right to expect. You're not likely to have a better time at the movies this year, and we can only hope this film becomes popular enough to launch a franchise, because you'll definitely find yourself wanting more.

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