The opening credits of Charlie's Angels hint at a movie that never appears in the film's expurgated 94 minutes; the tease is too soon rendered a disappointment. A Mission: Impossiblestyle prelude suggests a live-action cartoon as directed by Robert Altman; a camera stalks the aisles of a jumbo jet capturing snippets of scenery, from the bitchy, fey flight attendants to the couple sneaking into the john to enroll in the mile-high club to an in-flight screening of T.J. Hooker: The Movie. After some derring-do at 30,000 feet, easily the film's high-water mark and not worth spoiling even if the trailer does, the theme song cranks up, and John Forsythe offers the familiar introduction of his three angels: Natalie (Cameron Diaz), a retainer-wearing, stunt-driving dork who dreams of dancing on Soul Train; Dylan (Drew Barrymore), a tough girl blazing up in the girls' bathroom; and Alex (Lucy Liu), the genius of the bunch, both scientist and astronaut. The credits then taunt us with flashbacks to "previous episodes" in which the women front a punk band, crawl through muck in combat gear, traipse through the woods manacled together, and preen in bikini tops that reveal more flesh than fabric. Never, for a second, does this movie pretend it's anything other than a big-screen version of a 1970s TV series that made the word jiggle a noun, verb, and adjective.
But the charge of its first few minutes, which manage to contain cameos by both LL Cool J and Tom Green, dissipates the moment the film takes on the chore of actually telling a story. As a movie Charlie's Angels might have made an excellent television show; it's the first film to come with its own built-in commercial breaks. But it's merely a concept in search of a plot; the filmmakers and Barrymore, whose involvement got the picture made, couldn't decide what to do beyond the notion of updating Leonard Goldberg and Aaron Spelling's show, which now airs on TV Land more often than commercials. (Then again, Goldberg and Spelling didn't have much of a clue what to do with it either; does anyone remember the story line of a single episode?) Besides, a campy, novel redo of the series already exists on television: V.I.P., starring Pamela Anderson, a far more knowing comedienne than Drew Barrymore will ever be. At least Anderson never feels the need to wink at the audience; Barrymore winks, crosses her eyes, sticks out her tongue, flashes cleavage, and makes faces till she's sure we think she's funny. She wants us to like her -- there's a sad desperation to her performance here -- while Anderson couldn't care less.
Buried somewhere in this scrap heap is a story about a kidnapped computer programmer named Eric Knox (Sam Rockwell); his partner Vivian Wood (Kelly Lynch), who makes leather look cheap; Roger Corwin (Tim Curry, whose appearance all but guarantees a bad movie), the computer exec who may have stolen Knox's technology; and the so-called Creepy Thin Man (Crispin Glover), who never utters a word and shows up every so often to engage the Angels in bloodless battles straight out of every Hong Kong movie made since someone decided to string up actors from high wires. As if to admit the story makes little sense -- it must be missing at least 30 minutes' worth of footage -- the film stops repeatedly to tell you what's happening; more than once we are told that Knox is really the bad guy out to steal Corwin's technology by making him look like the villain. In one scene rookie director McG, who really should go back to making music videos, actually rewinds the action and replays it in slow motion, as if to reassure you that Barrymore is not dead. The director so underestimates his audience he all but stands in the aisles and tells us what morons we are.
Credited to three men but written and rewritten by an army (including two of the guys responsible for High Fidelity), Charlie's Angels didn't need a director; it needed a janitor to clean up the mess. Even Bill Murray, as Bosley, looks lost and ashamed; he put more into Larger Than Life, acting alongside an elephant, than he does here. He's also the victim of lousy editing: In one scene a fireplace nearly explodes in his face, and holding his head, Bosley limps into another room; the next time we see the man, he's being held prisoner in a castle, using his teeth to carve a gun out of soap while the Miami Vice theme inexplicably plays on the soundtrack, which is otherwise filled with techno hits from 1997. It's very likely that during the film's final scene, in which Bosley is seen drinking a tropical cocktail, Murray really is drunk; anything to ease the pain. (Still, Murray does fare better than Matt LeBlanc, Tom Green, and Luke Wilson, love interests for whom the word expendable was created.)
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The movie wants to have it both ways: It tries to be both camp send-up and kick-ass action film. But it delivers little on either front, because it's too chicken to play as full-blown parody and too desperate to deliver the body blows. With its Tekken 3 fight sequences, featuring actors strung from the rafters like buff marionettes, and its Matrix slow-mo bullets creeping through displaced air, you get the sense that McG figured if he threw in enough high-wire theatrics, audiences would be so dazzled by the gimmicks they'd fail to notice there's not a single character worth giving a damn about or a single plot point that makes a lick of sense. It's filmmaking as hypnosis: Watch the bouncing actor. The only thing different about Charlie's Angels is that it has a little extra sumpin'-sumpin' going on: Watch the bouncing boobies.