Not just for kicks

Skeptics dismiss Charlie's Angels, but can it finally allow women to star as action heroes?

SCARY PREDICTION: Twenty years from now, young people all across the country will be storming theaters to see Baywatch: The Movie. The movie's targeted demographic—18- to 30-year-olds—will think of the original TV series as a ready-for-rediscovery '90s relic, a quaint piece of pop culture history. Our daughters might even paint Pamela Anderson as a turn-of-the-millennium feminist.

Of course, our ghosts of television past are already haunting us in the $90 million movie Charlie's Angels, starring Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, and Lucy Liu, based on the crime-and-cleavage television show that ran from 1976 to 1981. But while critics debate the film's merits and laugh at its kitschy source, Charlie's Angels redefines the term "chick flick," used derisively to refer to romantic tearjerkers. With its emphasis on martial arts, Charlie's is the latest in a growing series of punchy female-oriented entertainment. Films such as Girlfight and TV shows such as Dark Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sex and the City, and even the Cartoon Network's The Powerpuff Girls portray women as the independent ass-kickers they like to be. (Sorry, Lifetime Network.)

By matching their skydiving, bomb-detonating, save-the-day male counterparts, the full-fledged heroines of Charlie's Angels underscore what has been missing in the male-dominated action movie genre: strong women who aren't just accessories or doe-eyed love interests to Cruise, Willis, and Schwarzenegger. Picking up on the current popularity of Hong Kong movies, Charlie's revamps the crime-fighting trio as martial arts experts who don't even need guns. Make that fashion-savvy martial arts experts; Drew, Cami, and Lucy evidently spent the past year training at the Conde Nast School of Kung Fu. In stiletto heels, they leap, karate chop, and smack the cheeks of their enemies without ever messing up their hair or makeup. Just as James Bond's tuxedos never hinder him from jumping out of an airplane, the Angels' stylishness doesn't detract from their combat maneuvers: There's more action here than in MI:2.

Clearly, though, some men aren't impressed. After an advance media screening of Charlie's in Los Angeles, one New York reporter dismissed it outright: "This movie makes [Adam Sandler's new] Little Nicky look like Gone with the Wind." Talk about your exaggerations; I saw Little Nicky and it sucked.

Later, however, a young woman reporter from the Midwest whispered to me, "Middle-aged guys aren't going to like Charlie's Angels. It's not made for them." Did she not see the ample shots of Lucy Liu's derriere? "Yes, but it's like they're offering the sexy images, then they take it back," she pressed. One of her favorite parts of the movie, she added, was the scene in which Diaz, in the middle of a fight, takes a call from a cute bartender she met at a party. After crushing her opponent, she yells, "Do you know how hard it is to find a quality man in Los Angeles?" It's a corny scene, but it captures the movie's girlie spirit, making romance as much a part of the story as in other more traditional chick flicks.

Like the two reporters, I was among the hundreds of film critics flown to Los Angeles to see the movie and interview the actresses at a press conference. Personally, I like the new Charlie's, and my opinion has nothing to do with my free stay at the posh Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills or my delightful discovery that both Lucy Liu and Drew Barrymore are shorter than my own 5-foot-4-inch frame. Like many film critics, I had expected Charlie's to be cheesy and stupid. Numerous summer reports of script problems and conflicts between cast members boded failure. But the movie actually turns out to be a smooth repackaging of the TV show's poppy feminism. "Never send a man to do a woman's job," sneers a female villain.

BACK IN 1976, the TV version of Charlie's Angels debuted to resounding criticism. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer said, "The dialogue stretches credibility to a transparent sheer for the most part, the acting is on the level of a high school play." Village Voice critic Judith Coburn called it "one of the most misogynist shows the networks have produced."

Yet it was effective enough to spark fads and generate millions in lunch box and poster sales. While Farrah and company aroused fantasies in many an adolescent boy, they made an equally big impression on girls. In third grade, I had a notebook bearing an image of Farrah. She was in a red bathing suit, flashing her pearly whites and tossing back her famous feathered mane (the hairstyle that so many of my friends and I tried to emulate with the aid of a hot curling iron). During recess, my friends and I would run around, point our fingers like guns, and hum the Angels' theme music. For a few years, whatever its merits, Charlie's Angels offered girls an alternative to the images of women as TV's housekeepers and wives. For my friends and I growing up in rural Texas, the Angels were the ones who had escaped the clutches of a male-serving society. They weren't like our dowdy schoolteachers or our overprotective mothers; they were cool grown-up women.

"They were independent, they were sexy, and they were women. They were great," says Terri Davis, a 27-year-old woman I met at a Halloween party. (She was dressed, unironically, as a nurse, while her boyfriend, wearing a hospital gown, was her patient.)

Of course, the TV show's feminism only went so far, as the Angels ultimately answered to the absent patriarch Charlie (the grandfatherly voice of John Forsythe returns for the movie). During the crowded press conference inside the Four Seasons ballroom, I confronted Cameron Diaz about why we didn't see Charlie, then or now. She tossed up her hands and offered a showbiz answer: "I have no idea. I wish I knew, because then we could get to him." Cameron, I wanted to say, you don't need Charlie, but the star was already on to the next question.

In one of the few insightful moments of the conference, Barrymore, who doubled as an executive producer on the movie, crystallized why Charlie's Angels was so ripe for a woman-oriented take on the action film model. "I liked the original show in that the women had this great camaraderie," she explained. "There was a lack of competition and they egged each other on."

Ally McBeal's Lucy Liu, alluding to the reputed cast in-fighting, added, "We assume that men who have never met can get along, sit in a room, and watch a football game. But with women, that entire soap-opera mentality of Dynasty is still pervasive. You know, God forbid if a beautiful woman should acknowledge another woman as beautiful without having that be a difficult situation or a jealous situation."

ANYONE FAMILIAR with Hong Kong action star Michelle Yeoh (Supercop), who's been kicking ass for well over a decade, can tell you that female action heroes are nothing new. But Yeoh, like American counterparts such as Linda Hamilton (The Terminator) and Carrie-Anne Moss (The Matrix), has been a sidekick to more prominent male costars. Charlie's Angels, with its high-profile actresses, redirects the action spectacle toward women. A small step maybe for our cineplexes, but if it spawns a whole new genre of estrogen-powered action movies, it could turn into a leap.

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