Ah, the early 2000s. A time of flashy excess. A time when monoculture still existed, and we were all soaked in it. A time when the gritty ironies of ‘90s Gen-Xers became candy-coated and magnified into multi-colored pastiches of bubblegum irony. This new flavor of irony was so sincerely manufactured, it turned a corner and became “real” again. We were having fun, and we knew we were having fun, and we winked loudly about it all along the way. All of these cultural impulses and more coalesced together in two 2000s-defining (for better and for worse) action magnum opuses: Charlie’s Angels (2000) and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003).
These films, the debut features from music video director turned vulgar auteur extraordinaire McG (born Joseph McGinty Nichol), are based on the classic 1970s TV series of the same name. The premise, as explained neatly in a crackerjack opening title sequence, is simple: Three incredible cops, who happen to be beautiful women, work the highest-stakes, most action-packed cases available for the Charles Townsend Agency. Their boss, Charlie, only gives his “Angels” missions through a speaker, though they’re assisted by the flesh-and-blood Bosley. In the show, the rotating cast of Angels were played throughout the five-season run by Farrah Fawcett, Kate Jackson, Jaclyn Smith, Cheryl Ladd, Shelley Hack, and Tanya Roberts. For the 2000s update, the Angels were played by Cameron Diaz, Lucy Liu, and Drew Barrymore (who produced the films and recommended McG for the directing gig).
There’s a new Charlie’s Angels film coming soon from writer/director Elizabeth Banks and new Angels Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, and Ella Balinska. And somewhat surprisingly, the film is not a reboot but a continuation of the entire series, incorporating both the TV show and McG’s 2000s films. So, in celebration of the upcoming entry to the Extended Charlieverse, I decided to rewatch McG’s 2000s fever dream Charlie’s Angels flicks with just one question on my mind: Do they hold up?
It’s… complicated! And stuffed! Charlie’s Angels has so much “stuff” going on, it’s truly intimidating to reckon with. Just when I had a critical thought about one interesting moment, 900 other interesting moments were there to smash cut in my face and demand my attention. And attention I paid it: Charlie’s Angels is, first and foremost, interested in entertaining you. And it will throw the kitchen sink to get it. And then blow up the kitchen sink. And then hurl the bathroom sink and blow that up and then suddenly it’s not sinks anymore it’s inflatable pool toys and then… like I said, there’s a lot of “stuff” going on. And I was thoroughly engaged throughout the experience. But there’s something insidious going on underneath the pervasive pleasures of the flick. In ways both subtle and — more often than not — embarrassingly obvious.
First of all: It’s casually problematic throughout. Its opening sequence, an impressive one-shot wonder (a move McG will return to a few more times during the franchise), features a stereotypically gay flight attendant making a fat shaming joke about a customer before acting racist toward LL Cool J. It’s almost like McG and writers Ryan Rowe, Ed Solomon, and John August were playing “Icky Comedy Bingo” and were determined to cover all the squares as quickly as possible. The film rocks and rolls along in its determination to sneakily offend — or, more accurately, to bluntly depict offensive things without any idea they’re offensive. For one undercover mission, the three Angels — Barrymore being white, Diaz being half-Cuban, and Liu being Chinese-American — wear dark wigs, don kimonos, slap on makeup, and behave like stereotypical Japanese geishas. All to the tune of “Turning Japanese.” It’s an egregiously, vilely, unconscionably racist sequence. And it is, if not bested, at least equaled by a sequence that immediately follows it up, in which two celebrated comedic actors (Tim Curry and Bill Murray, which rhymes) put on big sumo wrestling outfits and fight each other while grunting and making stereotypically Asian noises. Only one word comes to mind: Yikes!
In a scene later in the film, we cut suddenly to two boys playing some violent video games in their living room. They’re having a debate — one of them claims he’s seen actual breasts in real life, the other claims he’s lying. Then, they’re interrupted by Barrymore knocking at their see through door — and she’s fully nude, covering herself up with nothing but pool toys. If these boys haven’t seen boobs before, they’re about to now! LOL!
I would call this comedy set piece indicative of the film’s, and McG’s, relationship to gender and sex. Female sexuality is something that both titilates and terrifies, punctuating a dull roar of casual violence. McG and Academy Award-winning cinematographer Russell Carpenter ogle the hell out of their female subjects. In many instances, they even separate body parts from their owners, objectifying and fetishizing butts, breasts, and ambiguous areas of bare skin covered in sweat. Everyone involved is trying to reframe these moments of sexual performance as celebratory for the women involved. The three stars work their damndest to put a smile on their face, giggle with joy, and show us that they’re doing this for them, not us. But that veneer, like much of their clothing, is thin. One early sequence finds Diaz, in tight underpants, shaking her butt at herself in a camera. Okay, I guess she’s dancing just for herself in an act of self-empowerment! Cool! But then, McG and Carpenter’s camera shifts to the mirror’s POV. And suddenly Diaz, without her knowledge, isn’t dancing for herself but rather for us. So much of the film’s sexualized moments follows this formula: The Angels do something sexy for, ostensibly, the fun of it — until we are given an extreme front row seat to McG’s male gaze. However, this is all a touch complicated by the film’s weaponization of sex, and potential criticisms of the dumb men who fall for them. So many times, the Angels use their bodies to take control of the men they’re being sexy to, and the men turn to complete, doddering idiots. One key sequence features Liu in a dominatrix outfit being followed by a group of slobbering, stereotypically “nerdy” men, leaving the other Angels (dressed in drag as men) to get the intel they need. Another sees Barrymore in a wildly revealing “racing pit crew” outfit, who distracts a man by licking (!) a car’s steering wheel (!!) and making orgasm noises at the AC (!!!). The reaction shots of the man are masterclasses in cartoonishly befuddled mugging. Is McG making a subtle commentary on the inherent stupidity of men when sex is on the line? Is he indicting his stupid audience as well? Or does he just like boobs and butts and LOLs?
I also want to clarify these criticisms vis-a-vis problematic elements in entertainment in general. I’m not a prude. I’m sensitive, but not overly so (okay, maybe a little overly so). I watch and enjoy a ton of movies with sexy people doing questionable things. I get that this is a silly blockbuster action flick meant to offer mindless fun. But the idea that our society’s ideas of “mindless fun” are intrinsically coded with systemic sexism and racism, and we’re not only conditioned to but celebrated for not thinking about such problematics, is troubling. To say the least.
Okay, now that I’ve written my college thesis, let’s get into what does work about the film. Believe it or not: a lot does! I admire McG’s go-for-broke enthusiasm and visual energy — more often than not, it results in striking images, unorthodox setpieces, and thrillingly crafted sequence construction. So much of modern blockbuster visual vocabulary is marked by an intention to go realer, grittier, more grounded. It’s downright refreshing to see a movie with the colors cranked up and “fun” being the order of the day. I also love seeing movie stars being very good at being movie stars — in particular, Diaz is a thrill to watch in her hand-to-hand combat scenes, and Liu just needs to be cast in every action movie from now on, please and thank you. Sam Rockwell, whom we all now know as “the supporting asshole character who’s actually good at heart” in every prestige picture, plays a sweet and nerdy tech bro who falls for Barrymore, before revealing himself to be a very charismatic villain (very prescient to make your tech bro the villain, McG!). In what’s likely my favorite sequence in the whole damn movie, McG covers Rockwell’s revelation and Barrymore’s regret in a swirling, restless one-take delight. We get to agonize in every second of Barrymore’s vulnerability, while taking in the bonkers surprise of Rockwell’s sudden viciousness. Oh, and all the while he’s dancing VERY WELL to Marvin Gaye. It’s the perfect blend of McG’s visual inventiveness with his knack for giving movie stars the perfect “movie star shit” to do.
Finally, I just want to communicate how much I had a blast with the “2000s” of it all. If you grew up during those years as I did, there will be so much in this film that’ll take you right back. The Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up” underscoring a Matrix biting fight sequence, in which the Angels suddenly can float and fly, wire-fu style? Hell yeah. Everyone’s hairstyle bringing huge “trendy 2000s” energy? Hell yeah. The film ending with our Angels dressed all pop-punk chic playing instruments to Blink-182’s “All the Small Things”? Hell yeah. And that G-D Destiny’s Child banger “Independent Women” absolutely demolishing when it’s dropped in the film? Hell. Freaking. Yeah. If you’re down for a sugar rush of nostalgia, and are willing to reckon with some of the harsh truths that we all ignored during those sugary times, Charlie’s Angels will give you what you need.
Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle
McG got the subtitles wrong. Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle is, particularly in comparison to its manic predecessor, paced with a certain level of patience and even introspection. Less “full throttle,” more “reasonable usage of throttle.” That’s not to say Full Throttle doesn’t reach the insane heights of the first film — in some key sequences, it manages to top them. But in both its screenplay construction (written by the returning August and newcomers Cormac and Marianne Wibberley) and its sense of scene-to-scene rhythms, Full Throttle gives us a welcome touch of nuance and control.
But, also, the first image we see of an Angel is an extreme close-up of Liu’s butt, so… it’s still complicated. There does, to be fair, seem to be a sense of corrective measure taken in terms of the performative sexuality of the characters being reframed to their enjoyment rather than ours. Moments like a spontaneous dance number while helping Diaz and Luke Wilson move in together feel genuinely joyful for the Angels. Even an opening moment of Diaz pretending to be a clueless Swede as a distraction for her partners, while turning into a “sexualized riding a mechanical bull” set piece, plays more organically like comedy (that Diaz is enjoying and leading as a performer) and a genuine spy tactic. I’d also be willing to guess that Barrymore, using her producerial might, asked for some character changes — this installment’s Dylan Sanders has an obsession with classic rock and roll she didn’t before, seems to wear less revealing outfits than her fellow Angels, and has one of the film’s richer inner conflicts to deal with — not to mention one of the biggest relationships to Justin Theroux’s Irish mafia villain. And speaking of Theroux, he represents another attempt at course correcting the sexual politics of Charlie’s Angels. Theroux is, as many of us know, a hunk. A beefcake. An actor who’s simply rife with muscles. And Full Throttle shows them to us early and often. In fact, Full Throttle shows us lots of hunky male bodies, and shows the Angels enjoying and commenting on them in the way that McG and his audience enjoys and comments on the Angels’ bodies. Is this an attempt at “equal opportunity objectification”? A pre “Daniel Craig coming out of the beach in Casino Royale” moment of reclaiming gaze and desire in blockbuster cinema?
At the risk of being a broken record: It’s complicated. Because while these steps are felt and appreciated, Full Throttle still ogles the hell out of its stars’ bodies. A burlesque scene is particularly cavalier about using Diaz’s body. The ending credits, featuring genuinely charming bloopers and raw footage of the stars’ friendship, is intercut with icky car wash footage that’s fully not in the film. And in perhaps the dumbest, most transparently, destructively horny sequence of both films — the Angels break into the back room of a facility by hiding in a box… fully nude. When they all emerge, they’re just naked. Just — why? Why did they need to be nude to make this plan work? Wasn’t it awkward for the three of them to be so close together in a dark box without clothes? Literally no one else is around in the scene — what is their endgame? As if to underline the icky arbitrariness of the choice, the Angels in the VERY NEXT SHOT are fully clothed again. Pure, pointless, stupid sexism.
And yet — so much of Full Throttle really works, more so than its predecessor. Maybe it was a case of Stockholm Syndrome after watching these movies back to back, but there was a decent-sized chunk of this film where all I wrote in my notes was “That’s good.” Some examples and clarifications: Bernie Mac is good. He takes over the Bosley role (not surprising if you know about the Murray/Liu onset spats) and gets a lot of mileage out of being comically befuddled by every doggone thing (especially surfing. Man, Mac is good at not knowing what surfing is). In general: The film’s sense of humor is good. McG seems to have gotten a bit more self-aware with the cartoonishness of his franchise, and has leaned in heavily toward making comedic choices intentionally. In particular, a sequence where the Angels visit a convent undercover as nuns to interrogate Carrie Fisher is jam-packed with tight visual gags, ludicrous sound effects, and the second-best use of “The Lonely Goatherd” in a major motion picture. In fact: McG’s sense of directorial finesse is good. If the first film is a waterfall of visual imagination spewing in unchecked perpetuity, the second film is a compressed fire hose — still the same elements, but more focused and even a little more powerful. The first film is jammed with nonstop energy, noise, movement, and music. In Full Throttle, McG seems to have learned the power of space. Some of the action sequences play in relative silence before culminating in a decisive sound design choice. As a result, these scenes (especially the Bruce Willis cameo, a tension-filled suspense piece shot in hazy blues) actually gain a little depth and menace, rather than the pure cotton candy of the first film. In other words: If McG’s first Charlie’s Angels film is “…Baby One More Time,” his second one is “Toxic.” Finally, and likely most importantly: Lucy Liu’s lewks are good. No clarification needed on that point.
From a writing perspective, August and the Wibberlys have taken care to go deeper on the Angels’ lives beyond the shenanigans of their missions. Each one has a personal conflict they must reckon with: Diaz worries about her burgeoning relationship with Wilson, Barrymore worries about Theroux and her Angels moving on without her, and Liu worries about her off-again relationship with Matt LeBlanc (of course) and secrets kept from her father John Cleese (of course). In a middle section of the film, we completely abandon the momentum of the plot to zero in on each Angel’s “dark night of the soul” in brief, purely character-driven vignettes. While it did noticeably slow the film down, it was nice to experience an attempt at more traditional screenwriting — especially since the sequences end with Barrymore getting a visit from Jaclyn Smith bathed in an angelic light, and effectively ramp us back up to crazytown.
Another screenwriting deepening that worked with 100% effectiveness? The film’s main villain, a former angel played impeccably by Demi Moore. Her motivations for her villainous shenanigans are… the word I’m searching for is “correct.” In a film franchise defined by its constant ownership and reduction of women, embedded not only in the visual grammar but by Charlie’s literal friggin’ mission statement calling them “little girls” and saying “they work for me,” it is beyond refreshing to see Moore work on behalf of independence and empowerment. “I don’t take orders from a speakerbox anymore,” she growls at one point. “I work for myself.” Later, to prove her point, she even shoots the speakerbox Charlie speaks from! And, yes, the ultimate point of the film is to show that the power of friendship is more powerful than the siren call of lonely hate (as articulated by a very delightful, very literal sequence where Liu and Barrymore fly in on ropes to save the day), and that is a point worth making. But just about every single time Moore said anything about her ethos (“Why be an Angel when I can play God?”), I think to myself, “She’s right!” Now that’s good villain writing.
And now that I’ve spent a long time talking about Full Throttle’s relative complexities, I will quickly summarize three sequences that utterly floored me in their bonkersness. One: The scene in which The Thin Man (Crispin Glover’s wild, hair-smelling henchman) and Drew Barrymore, in the middle of a vicious fight scene, suddenly develop feelings for each other and kiss passionately. The Thin Man screams, Drew Barrymore tries sniffing his hair to see if she likes it, the Thin Man starts to speak for the first time, but gets sworded in the gut. Two: The scene in which the Angels “grind” down some ropes using wooden planks created in an explosion like they’re abruptly playing Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater in a sequence that lasts less than four seconds and no one ever talks about it again. Three: While the sequel’s needle drops can in no way match the power of Destiny’s Child, there is a fight sequence set to the Prodigy’s “Firestarter” that I chose to read as a meta-commentary on Barrymore, star of 1984’s Firestarter adaptation, moving on from how we perceive her. She even says “You don’t know me anymore” right before the title drop in the song. Thank you for your time.
Enough jibber-jabbering: Do the flicks hold up or not? Ultimately, Full Throttle holds up better than the first. It’s less rife with pervasive, casual sexism and racism (though some is certainly still there; I especially wanted to tackle LeBlanc through the screen when he spoke in a stereotypical Asian accent to Liu) and its narrative and visual rhythms will remind you more of contemporary action films in a good way. And yet, sometimes you don’t want a contemporary action film. Sometimes you want to mainline the masculine id powering the veins of 2000s America, without any need for coherence attached. In that case, the first Charlie’s Angels will give you that fix and thensome — but I highly recommend you watch it as a historical artifact, and be prepared to unpack many of the sneaky problematics embedded within its DNA.
My final thought, before zooming onto the next mission: Rewatching these flicks made me even more excited for the upcoming Banks take. There’s lots of gold in these early 2000s hills, and if Banks can capitalize on what made this films rule while eradicating what made them cringeworthy, she’ll have an angelic action film on her hands. Now, if you excuse me, I’ve got a gritty B. J. and the Bear big-screen treatment to tackle.