[Written for Seattle Post-Intelligencer]
“Not another movie from an old TV show,” moans an airline passenger in the opening scene of Charlie’s Angels as T.J. Hooker: The Movie flashes on the screen as the inflight movie. It’s a cute bit of self-deprecating humor, but this is one sentiment that backfires.
In case you were too young for the 1970s prime-time phenomenon, the original Charlie’s Angels was kind of like Starsky and Hutch with cleavage. Three women detectives work for an unseen boss (voice of John Forsythe, who returns for the movie) who sends them on undercover assignments where they can wear tight clothes and bikinis.
The movie updates the technology to the 21st century — Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, and Lucy Liu drive faster cars, break into more sophisticated security systems, hack bigger computers, and spout techno-babble with the giddy spirit of sorority girls comparing dates — and if anything pushes the jiggle factor to the limits of PG-13.
These sex kitten superheroes can kick gravity-defying martial arts butt and rewire a guided missile with bubble gum, but are sadly more convincing as they proudly display their décolletage in leering closeups, shake their booties in shots seemingly lifted from “The Thong Song” music video, and eagerly strip down to bikinis, hot pants, panties, and strategically draped bedsheets.
The bungled James Bond-like adventure (astonishingly attributed to three writers and reportedly toiled over by many more — what were they paid for, devising more ingenious ways to get Diaz into her skivvies?) is like a candy-colored marriage of Mission: Impossible (I and II), The Matrix, and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit video, and about as coherent.
The story has something to do with stolen hi-tech software, a computer genius with Saturday Night Fever dance stylings (Sam Rockwell), and a snide electronics mogul (Tim Curry in a by now familiar turn), but former video director McG either doesn’t care or (quite rightly) figures that taking this movie seriously is a waste of effort.
In the absence of scripted personalities or character traits, Diaz and Barrymore rely on sheer exuberance and embrace the retro-jiggle T&A with camp gusto, while Liu straddles the comic book gooniness and action movie deadpan with comic aplomb. Bill Murray completes the quartet as their Man Friday Bosley, a kind of father figure and big brother rolled into one wisecracking ball.
At its best it is self-effacing fun, a splashy series of set pieces motivated by costume changes, stitched together with slick techno-gimmicks, and sold with the most shameless sexual eye candy this side of softcore. But the cartoonish approach takes its toll: the random twists and contrived showdowns devolve into just so much abstract business, too silly to take seriously and too unmotivated to make sense. All that’s left by the end is the most expensive cheesecake movie ever made.