In the first 10 minutes of 2000’s Charlie’s Angels, Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu change into 28 different costumes. There are wigs, bikinis, astronaut suits and a Mission: Impossible-style latex mask that briefly transforms Barrymore into LL Cool J. Released almost 20 years ago, Charlie’s Angels is a film of flare and excess, in which everything is in service of outlandish set pieces and ogling its female leads. As a franchise reboot opens to dismal box office and middling reviews, it is time to acknowledge that its predecessor is something of a masterpiece.
Perhaps not deliberately so. Charlie’s Angels entered production in 1999 without a script (“It’s not the most introspective film in town,” director McG told Entertainment Weekly), and at least two cast members who hated each other. “I get why you’re here, and you’ve got talent,” Bill Murray reportedly said of Barrymore and Diaz on set, before turning to Liu: “But what in the hell are you doing here? You can’t act!” Liu allegedly began throwing punches, and Murray didn’t come back for the 2003 sequel.
But it’s in the film’s improvised, “let’s just do whatever” ethos that Charlie’s Angels becomes fascinating. It’s also there in its fixation on shiny teeth and hair being shaken loose in the wind, and the absolute absence of narrative, character and music that isn’t ripped from a Sounds of the 80s CD. In truth, Charlie’s Angels is an unintentional art film, such a maximalist and ambiguously knowing film that it becomes almost Warholian.
Elizabeth Banks’s new revival, led by the lower star-wattage trio of Naomi Scott, Ella Balinska and Kristen Stewart, has been criticised for its “T-shirt feminism”. While she apparently handled such messaging poorly, Banks also had little choice but to address the sleazy elephant in the room.
Charlie’s Angels, from its earliest inception as an Aaron Spelling-produced series and proud representative of what was known as “Jiggle TV”, was exclusively about beautiful women in tight clothes solving crimes. Instead of its plots or storylines, Farrah Fawcett’s feathered hairdo remains its sole cultural imprint. The 2000 film version is equally prehistoric in its aesthetic choices – the camera fixates on the women's bodies.
It is, however, progressive in other ways. A rare high-budget action film entirely anchored by women, Charlie’s Angels also represents an early victory for female producers – Drew Barrymore, alongside production partner Nancy Juvonen, brought the project to fruition after years of it being stuck in development hell, and her fingerprints are all over the final product. Like Barrymore’s public persona, it is relentlessly positive in an upbeat, politically neutral and sickly-sweet sort of way.
The Angels, Natalie (Diaz), Dylan (Barrymore) and Alex (Liu) are best friends, devoid of rivalry or competition, with their friendship taking emotional precedence over the men in their lives... which is nice. Charlie’s Angels, as summed up in a fairly withering review by the late critic Roger Ebert, is “like the trailer for a video game movie”. It is a deliberately mindless celebration of glamour and nonsense, which maybe shouldn’t be celebrated, but can be appreciated all the same.
Existing like a breath-mint accompanying your restaurant bill, the alleged plot is nice but inessential. It involves a software genius played by Sam Rockwell, whose invention has fallen into nefarious hands. Kelly Lynch, as Rockwell’s business partner, is also secretly villainous – we know this, because she’s wearing an enormous brown wig. It’s a hairdo that makes her look like Chrissie Hynde’s evil twin.
“Of course!” Natalie cries at one point. “All Red Star satellites have global positioning systems. Combine that with voice identification and any cell phone could be a homing device!” Such expository scenes are played almost on fast-forward, the Angels finishing one another’s sentences and coming to similar investigative conclusions. And then it’s onto the next sexy set piece.
Its fascinating mindlessness is best reflected, and most victorious, in how it distils movie stardom into an easily digestible bite. Natalie, Dylan and Alex aren’t so much characters as avatars for fame, beauty and aesthetic allure; a three-headed symbol for why we are so spellbound by really, really good-looking people. If stardom is an indefinable “X-factor” that can only be recognised by instinctively knowing when it’s in front of you, then Charlie’s Angels is its natural endpoint – final confirmation that as long as we are dazzled by the beauty and colour on screen, everything else is incidental.
Charlie’s Angels just about manages to get by because of its sheer star power, enhanced by an incredible theme song, “Independent Women Part 1” by Destiny’s Child, that is equally as cool and brilliant and weightless in its empowerment. That additional concoction, of beautiful movie stars, bright Americana, and shots of Diaz punching people to the sounds of The Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up”, transforms Charlie’s Angels from abject trash into an almost post-cinema masterpiece.
Perhaps it’s why the new Charlie’s Angels hasn’t worked as well. Remove the mindlessness, introduce an air of self-importance and strand poor Kristen Stewart (reportedly the best thing in it) alongside two young actors nobody knows, and you’re left with not very much at all.
”People may still think it’s crap,” Barrymore said of Charlie’s Angels in 2000. “But the important thing is we gave the audience something they can enjoy.” For better or for worse, the film is exactly what Barrymore hoped it would be.