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The Absurd, Reckless Fun of the Early-2000s ‘Charlie’s Angels’

Twenty years ago, a mainstream action film trying to do something new didn’t necessarily have to go serious and dark—it could also be goofy and full of Cameron Diaz’s bad dancing

Columbia Pictures/Ringer illustration

Even as commercial cinema evolves, one thing always has and always will be true: Girls just want to have fun. A post-#MeToo remake of Charlie’s Angels is about to hit the screens, some 16 years after Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, the previous film about the three winged spies, itself a sequel to 2000’s hit Charlie’s Angels—movies that all owe their existence to the late-’70s TV show of the same name. For a while now, there’s been a call to see female action heroes alongside male ones. The answers to that call haven’t always resembled one another. The way the two early-aughts films explored the premise is particularly mind-boggling—especially when considered from the vantage point of our current era’s well-intentioned (if sometimes less than inspiring) focus on identity politics, feminism, and superheroes.

“You know how superheroes have secret identities,” Alex (Lucy Liu) says to herself as she practices finally telling her boyfriend Jason (Matt LeBlanc) about her double life as a super-spy. But then she admonishes her own naivete—as if she could ever blow up her cover and maintain his trust! Yet she’s right—that side of herself has little to do with Iron Man’s public face as Tony Stark, nor with Spider-Man’s Peter Parker. In Charlie’s Angels and Full Throttle, defending people in secret is more exciting than it is an excuse for character study. The emphasis, instead, is on everything fun: disguises, special gadgets, and martial arts. Wigs are almost characters unto themselves, and throughout the first film, visual signifiers multiply and lead nowhere—typical of how movies at the time didn’t try to please the audience as much as surprise it. Why does Alex dress up as a leather-bound socialist dominatrix when she and her two colleagues, Natalie (Cameron Diaz) and Dylan (Drew Barrymore), infiltrate some offices? To distract the all-male staff, of course, but also, simply, because the “Barracuda” drop is too fun to pass up.

In 2000, a mainstream action film trying to bring something new to the table wouldn’t necessarily go serious and dark or have a clown in it; the other possible path was goofy and parodic. A year after The Matrix introduced gravity-defying martial arts to American cinema, Charlie’s Angels leaned into the wire-fu technique to create increasingly improbable fight sequences, reaching extremes of silliness later on in Full Throttle: As they are being exploded into the air, the girls grab on to thin pieces of wood with which they then surf down a rope from a boat onto the shore. Why not? These leaps of credibility take nothing away from the genuine effort put into these moves: All three actresses are impressively athletic and dedicated even in the most absurd scenarios, straight-faced when need be (with the precious help of stunt performers, of course). The fun is taken seriously.

Both films, helmed by Korn’s favorite music video director, McG, rework the spy genre by shamelessly framing it in a very early-aughts music video aesthetic, all fish-eye lenses, bad dance moves, and bombastic sounds. Diaz riffs on her There’s Something About Mary persona to play Natalie as a clueless and overenthusiastic woman-baby (a counterpoint to Apatowian man-children), her dance numbers not so much pausing the action as delivering it; pure hedonism means never having to say sorry. Whereas James Bond needs the pretext of someone watching him suspiciously in order to be seen in his swimming shorts, the Angels spontaneously drop Natalie’s moving boxes to dance like MC Hammer himself to his 1989 hit “U Can’t Touch This.” The message is clear: You truly cannot touch this.

Such dedication to entertainment is delightful in and of itself, but also for how, implicitly and by contrast, it makes fun of the morosity of regular, male-dominated spy films (Bruce Willis, the emblematic sarcastic action man, has a very short cameo as a government official in Full Throttle that ends with his offscreen murder). There is female empowerment to be found here: Turns out women can be funny, too—but, for better or worse, this is the extent of Charlie’s Angels’ feminism in the 2000s.

These films make no grand statement on working women: The men in the trio’s lives do struggle to get used to their lovers’ or daughters’ unpredictable schedules and secrets—especially LeBlanc, who plays a struggling mediocre actor like he did on Friends, but without being unbearable—but these conflicts are afterthoughts in the films’ plots rather than central political issues. Alex, Natalie, and Dylan are generally comfortable in the world because they are able (and willing) to use their status as women to get what they want. They are happy to “work their magic,” as they call it, and play with their feminine physical attributes to fool bad men. Of course, that allows the films to have their cake and eat it too: Have your sexy female characters use and delight in their own objectification by men, so that your spectators can objectify them, too, guilt free. When the team prepares a Mission: Impossible–style robbery, their plan is explained via split screens showing both their projected moves and their red lips in close-up—Ethan Hunt could never.

Natalie, in particular, invites the male gaze with both fervor and obliviousness, even when she’s not working; just like with Mary in the Farrelly brothers’ film, it’s often hard to say whether the character, played by Diaz with such exaggerated energy and silliness, is aware of the effects of her behavior. She talks in sexual innuendos both when she tries to seduce a suspect and when she opens the door for the mailman. As Diaz leans into the crassness of the dumb blond stereotype, the effect is ambiguous, verging on cruel misogyny. But her undeniable acting talent, together with Natalie’s ecstatic glee when she can lead a crowd of aroused men (by suggestively riding an electronic bull, for instance), tend to save her from total, alienating ridiculousness. Falling in love with Pete (Luke Wilson), a waiter she meets while undercover, further validates her temperament and gives dimension to her puerile joviality. Like her, Pete is oblivious to his own awkwardness; their pairing recalls the adorable boundless excitement that seizes two small pups when they meet and discover each other.

Alex, by contrast, takes pleasure not in exciting men, but in thwarting their enthusiasm as sadistically as possible—which, of course, makes her even more appealing to both her victims and the spectator (see: the dominatrix outfit). Having these sexual dynamics clearly play out in such a mainstream film, even if not always with much narrative coherence, feels liberating and impossible to find in today’s theaters—at least, not in the same reckless, purely entertaining form. The second film even manages to sort of make the Thin Man character’s fetishes no longer repulsive: As this contract killer (a creepy Crispin Glover) joins the girls’ side, his habit of pulling out and smelling the girls’ hair and screaming is normalized by Dylan, who shares a romantic moment with him—before he gets killed.

Beyond their personal satisfaction, the Angels themselves are the first to be entertained by each other’s tricks. The films’ focus on female friendship means that the spectators’ enjoyment of the team’s sex appeal comes second: As much as they are parading themselves for the viewer, they first and foremost get off on it together and for each other, especially so in Full Throttle, a film with a much clearer tone that is, as a result, a little less charmingly bizarre than Charlie’s Angels. They enjoy looking at each other’s absurd performances, whether it involves riding a dirt bike or licking a car’s steering wheel to distract a guard. That group dance to “U Can’t Touch This” ends with them collapsing together on Natalie’s toppled couch, laughing. The film points its camaraderie inward, rather than signaling it loudly toward the spectator.

On the other hand, Charlie’s Angels’ and Full Throttle’s focus on fun and irreverence doesn’t save these films from tastelessness. Playing with the spy film tropes implies walking on the eggshells of often racist imagery, and comedy may not be the most appropriate approach. It’s fine for Alex and Natalie to dress up as belly dancers and look like miscast extras in a B movie, yet why Dylan should appear in brownface is both a mystery and, also, sadly typical of an old-fashioned tendency to use difference for comedic effect. Meanwhile, the replacement of Bill Murray by Bernie Mac in Full Throttle to play Bosley came with a plethora of racial stereotypes that tried—and failed—to convince the audience of the franchise’s progressive diversity. Carelessness is enjoyable only until it isn’t.

Despite these major flaws, the most memorable aspect of the early-21st-century, pre-superhero, pre-#MeToo Charlie’s Angels movies remains their bold, shameless enthusiasm for visual pleasure, which appears most evidently in the display of their own cast members. Barrymore, who was also a producer on both movies, brought together talented women who not only dedicated themselves to the silly enterprise with professionalism, but also undeniably shared a genuine and crucial chemistry. The very energy of both films seems to be born out of this go-for-broke approach to comedy and action filmmaking, which appears also in the supporting cast. In Charlie’s Angels, a young Sam Rockwell brings his connected and precise acting to the duplicitous Eric Knox, making the character’s transformation from adorable geek to cold-blooded murderer surprisingly heartbreaking. His flirting scene with Barrymore is simply irresistible, with Rockwell acting extremely vulnerable and spontaneous and Barrymore slowly and helplessly letting her guard down while Spandau Ballet’s “True” plays softly in the background. Knox’s cruelty when he later shoots Dylan, however, is just as extreme and offhand. Sticking out in this deeply outlandish movie, Rockwell’s performance is the one that stayed with me through the years and long before his Oscar, even though the actor appears in only about four scenes. His now iconic dance moves as he relishes his evil doings are representative of these films’ effect: They both amuse with their brazenness and familiarity, and astound with their disregard for political correctness.

A remake of such a franchise, from only 19 years ago, is a weird proposition, but perhaps the rather recent and drastic changes in the film industry will make this updated version less reckless—though in retrospect, recklessness was the main draw. A considerate but boring Charlie’s Angels would be no victory. Sure, this year’s version looks to be, inevitably, purposefully and pointedly so, more respectable—but will it wear orange sunglasses and do the splits?

Manuela Lazic is a French writer based in London who primarily covers film.