Toward the end of the 2000 reboot of Charlie’s Angels, Drew Barrymore’s secret agent Dylan sits tied to a chair, muzzled by a piece of duct tape upon which Sam Rockwell’s villain has drawn the outline of what he calls “the fullest, sweetest, most luscious lips I have ever kissed.” Rockwell later tears the tape off, and five henchmen enter the room. “You guys like angel cake?” he asks, casually.
Barrymore deals with this implied threat of gang rape by splaying her legs in the air and giving a fun speech. “By the time this is over, every one of you is going to be face-down on the floor, and I’m going to moonwalk out of here,” she says with a cat-ate-the-canary look, giving specifics about whose back she’ll flip over, whose nose she’ll break, etc. She then makes good on her promises in an acrobatic fight scene, periodically pausing to announce the names of her kung-fu positions. “And that’s ‘kicking your ass!’” she shouts once she’s finished, before moonwalking—enthusiastically but poorly—out of the room.
It’s the signature scene of Charlie’s Angels, which was released 15 years ago today and now stands as a landmark of Y2K excess, cheer, and contradictory politics. The very premise—three awesome female cops employed by the unseen Charlie—would seem to necessarily comment on gender roles, but the new-millennium version of the ’70s TV show mostly came across as unweighted by social concerns. Its director McG Nichol, who’d only made music videos before, slathered on hyperactivity, gloss, and drum-and-bass songs while also not seeming too worried about plot coherence or the optics of objectification; he ended up with the seventh-highest-grossing film of 2000. Watched today, its carefree aura is so distinct, so winning, that it’s hard not to use dubious terms about simpler eras—pick either “pre-9/11” or “pre-social media”—to describe it.
Barrymore co-produced the movie, and her shyly sweet personal vibe seeped through the entire thing; David Edelstein’s Slate review at the time called the film “so, so Drew” and said that “when she leaps into a battle you can see in her eyes that she’s amazed—and thrilled!—to be playing a kung-fu superhero.” This description also mostly applies to Cameron Diaz, whose character is meant to be a brilliant airhead, socially inept but well-read and very fond of disco dancing. Lucy Liu cuts a slight contrast; she’s in black leather a lot, and is the one Angel who airs inner angst, chaffing against the fact that she has to hide her accomplishments from her movie-star boyfriend played by Matt LeBlanc. If you wanted to make the argument that this characterization derives from typecasting—Liu has notoriously been asked to play “dragon ladies” throughout her career—you could find evidence in the scene where she becomes a brusque Japanese masseuse, or to the one where she plays a dominatrix-esque efficiency expert.
Then again, all of the movie’s many instances of dress-up would come across as degrading if the Angels seemed to feel degraded by them. Instead, they grin irrepressibly whether pretending to be Formula One drivers or dirndl-decked singers or other professionals in skin-tight/skin-baring uniforms. A shocking number of scenes revolve around girls creating sexual distractions, licking steering wheels and belly-dancing as helpless male onlookers more or less have steam shoot from their ears. McG’s camera always inhabits those guys’ sightlines and desires—this is a remake of an iconic “jiggle TV” series, after all—but the trio seems to be having a ball seducing men, which is either an example of empowerment or of the kind of porny fantasy that Gone Girl’s “Cool Girl” speech made fun of. Regardless, romantic warfare is just one tool in the Angels’ arsenal. The thrillingly fake Matrix-esque fight scenes telegraph that these women have brawn; a few hard-to-follow sequences involving foreign languages or ornithology expertise are meant to show that they also have very powerful brains.
If they could get their romantic lives in order, you’d say the Angels are Having It All. But in addition to Liu’s tensions with LeBlanc, Barrymore’s character seems to have questionable taste in men—first there’s a tryst with Tom Green’s moronic tugboat captain, and then one with the secretly evil Rockwell—and Diaz’s crime-fighting career keeps getting in the way of her courtship with the bartender played by Luke Wilson. Oh well: The film crushes the Bechdel test by having the three women act like genuine friends to one another, and their most important male relationships are either professional or paternal. Bill Murray’s Bosley is their beloved assistant/boss who becomes the traditional damsel in distress (complete with castle) in the film’s last act, and the yet-more-beloved Charlie is clearly a father figure, though he never makes it onto screen. It’s a creepy premise, really, having the three kickass women serving the whims of a shadowy, cigar-smoking gentleman, but again, the heroines don’t seem to mind at all.
It’s perhaps regressive to praise the film’s smiling obliviousness, but 15 years later, something about it feels refreshing. Maybe it’s just the total lack of darkness. Today, the most exciting female action stars are defined by Katniss Everdeen-style seriousness; the most exciting comedy women have Amy Schumer’s self-deprecating edge; even Pitch Perfect and Bridesmaids boast a level of drama and genuine conflict that Charlie’s Angels doesn’t bother with (men now more often get to have pathos-free fun—see 21 Jump Street and Magic Mike XXL for example). Recent reports say that Elizabeth Banks may direct a new Charlie’s Angels, and it’s easy to imagine all the ways she might try to improve upon the 2000 version: more body-type diversity, smarter jokes, filmmaking that doesn’t resemble a string of beer and car commercials. But it’d be heartening if, amid the changes, there was still room for Angels who get to be, for the most part, angelic.