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Angels' almost takes flight

Long before TV audiences paid attention to the ever-changing hairstyles and form-fitting attire of Courteney, Jennifer and Lisa, they were transfixed by the gorgeous locks and looks of Jaclyn Smith, Kate Jackson and Farrah Fawcett-Majors, better remembered as the original "Charlie's Angels."

Aaron Spelling's show, a campy jiggle-fest that ended up weighing much closer on the side of exploitation than empowerment, has proven to be a pop-culture gold mine. "Angels" itself was rather flimsy. It is best known for its hairstyles and cast changes. The new film adaptation, a 92-minute adrenaline shot administered by music video maestro McG, is not much different, but what it lacks in substance it makes up with flash and fun.

 
Quick Cut
"Charlie's Angels"
Starring: Cameron Diaz

Grade: B-

The new trio of "Angels" are Natalie (Cameron Diaz), Dylan (Drew Barrymore, also a producer) and Alex (Lucy Liu), who have no connection to any of the previous six Angels who populated the series. And also unlike the series, these women are less easy to pigeonhole as one stereotype - where the show distinguished between the flighty one, the smart one and the sexy one, each of the three ladies in the film are a composite of these attributes, to varying degrees.

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    Nonetheless, "Angels" preys upon viewer memory of the original series. It jumps right into its skeletal plot, in which Vivian Wood (Kelly Lynch) hires the Angels to investigate the kidnapping of her partner, software entrepreneur Eric Knox (Sam Rockwell), leaving many fundamental questions answerable only to those familiar with the show. For example, how did Charlie find these new girls? Why do they fight crime, and where did they learn to hone their skills? Why must they keep their lives secret from their boyfriends? And how much time do they spend on their hair every day?

    The script, which is credited to Ryan Rowe, Ed Solomon and John August, is an extended series of sexual innuendoes (example line: Natalie saying "Feel free to stick things in my slot" to her mailman), explosions and kung-fu. Not really groundbreaking stuff, but it ain't exactly like the original show did a whole lot to elevate the medium of television.

    McG is guilty of one thing: grand theft. He doesn't borrow as much as shamelessly steal images and techniques, most obviously in the many fight scenes choreographed a la "Matrix"-style stop-and-go slow-mo. There are also several instances that are clearly inspired by "Face/Off" and that other TV-based film franchise "Mission: Impossible."

    Much like the latter, the new "Angels" plays much like a Bond movie, with the requisite amount of sex and deceit, but it holds onto a wink-wink knowing sense of humor. These girls may work for a man they never even meet (with John Forsythe reprising his voice-over role as Charlie), but they call their own shots. They use their own sexuality to control situations and almost earn the title of "Independent Women," the seemingly false label that also happens to be the first Destiny's Child theme song to be released off the soundtrack.

    Barrymore, who has lately carved a career out of characters who were clumsy and cute, is at her most alluring since her vixen-era "Poison Ivy" days. Dylan's sensuality comes off as surprisingly effortless. In contrast, Liu's restraint makes Alex a little too wooden to be truly sultry, which seems to be the direction she was aiming for here.

    It's Diaz, though, who really sizzles. I was surprised to see that she had top billing rather than find parity for the three co-stars, but this is clearly justified: Natalie is the latest addition to Diaz' list of uncool-chic characters, like those in "There's Something About Mary" and "Being John Malkovich." Her performances are full of such self-mockery that one thinks Diaz either is not aware of how smoldering her good looks are or she desperately wants people to overlook her appearance. It is a smart move that defies conventional wisdom and wins over male and female fans alike. Call her the anti-babe.

    Bill Murray also surfaces in a few scenes as Bosley, liaison between Charlie and his Angels. He's witty and dry, but for the most part, under-used. An even more understated performance comes from the disarming Crispin Glover in a dialogue-free role as a bad guy.

    But it's the girls who are the stars, and they're no pistol-packin' mamas. Using sex as a weapon, they call all the shots.

    Go, Girl Power, go!

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