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Mission Accomplished

Against all logic, Charlie’s Angels is a campy, vampy treat.

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This shouldn’t have happened. In a better world, the big-screen adaptation of Charlie’s Angels would have been a disaster all the way down to Drew Barrymore’s most intimate tattoo.

Given the dubious source material of Aaron Spelling’s ridiculous ’70s TV show, the decided, uh, talent limitations of those involved with the new film and the turmoil surrounding its ultra-expensive production, Charlie’s Angels should be a sarin gas leak of a film. It should be a warning to studios that think we don’t deserve to be challenged with unfamiliar entertainment. It should have taken a place with Waterworld and Last Action Hero as low marks in the mediocrity of studio pictures over the last two decades.

Go figure. Charlie’s Angels is an absolute blast.

It’s a big-budget comedy with a wry cynic’s heart, an outstanding action film that pairs serious ass-kicking with a genuine, infectious, goofball spirit. And let’s not forget the girls, who exude that have-your-thong-and-kick-butt-too neo-feminism that’s all the rage in pop culture these days—along with a lean athleticism that’s more fun to ogle than T&A any day.

Through some mysterious and surprising alchemy of wit, great direction and three entertaining performances, the film emerges as perhaps the most purely thrilling and clever studio picture of the year.

Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu are the newest Angels, the mysterious Charlie’s ever-changing group of elite private eyes or spies or something. They’re hired to find Eric Knox (Sam Rockwell), a computer programmer who’s been kidnapped along with voice identification software that’s really important to some guy. The plot is simple but fairly solid, and anyway it’s just a framework on which to hang a series of up-tempo set pieces.

Barrymore and Liu are energetic and compelling, but the film belongs to Diaz, who doesn’t have to play the straight woman as she did in There’s Something About Mary. Her Natalie character is alternately a scientist and a ditzy blonde—and we never question it, mostly because of Diaz’s infectious smile. Her charisma isn’t defined by her beauty, but rather by her enthusiasm. Her expression when she dances to “Baby Got Back”—shaking her emaciated little ass like a pompom—is worth the price of admission by itself.

The new film isn’t a spoof, but it isn’t a remake, either. It exists somewhere in between, and it effortlessly treads the fine line between parody and earnestness that almost nobody else can find. It’s not clear where this film found its uncannily accurate comic tone; Barrymore, who doubled as a producer, is way too actressy to get what’s going on here, while Diaz is just a hired hand.

The most likely culprit is first-time feature director McG, who puts on a no-holds-barred show in the best Michael Bay-David Fincher spirit. He has taken a script that underwent tinkering from at least 17 writers and fashioned that most rare of pictures: an action-comedy that succeeds in both genres.

Instead of firearms, the anti-gun Barrymore insisted the Angels use martial arts to dispense bosomy justice. That leads to fight scenes which borrow heavily from The Matrix and the Hong Kong tradition—but which also sizzle like few things on-screen in recent years.

The best is an astonishing early sequence—equal parts kick-ass and Cuckoo—in which our girls do epic battle with back-from-the-dead Crispin Glover, who plays an assassin with a thing for locks of the Angels’ hair. Part of the fight scenes’ peculiar power comes from the fact it’s exciting to see Cameron, Lucy and Drew doing the kicking—but it’s also just good camera work and choreography.

The film’s only wasted opportunity comes with Bill Murray, who has precious little to do as Bosley, the girls’ conduit to their millionaire boss. Murray isn’t much more than another ironic voice in a film that declares its awareness of pop culture by reveling in it, not by making fun of it.

You can pick up McG’s vibe quickly, and as the Angels get better looking and more talented, you’ll be swept along. Everybody is having a tremendous amount of Hollywood fun here, and the excitement is nearly palpable. The ’70s Angels were never more than a fantasy for those neo-feminists and 14-year-old boys alike, but the new Angels are much more.

They’re beautiful, they dress great, they’re self-mockingly intelligent—and they can jump into the air and throw kicks at your head for hours. What more could you want in three women?

Charlie’s Angels (PG-13) HHH1/2 Directed by McG. Starring Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu.

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