“Another movie from an old TV show,” sighs a character at the beginning of 2000’s Charlie’s Angels when confronted with the fictional T.J. Hooker: The Movie. Coming at around the same time as the feature-film versions of Mission: Impossible, The Mod Squad, The Avengers and Wild Wild West, among others, Charlie’s Angels (based on the ABC series about a trio of buxom female crime-fighters) was indeed part of a trend of adapting TV shows from the 1960s and ’70s into big-budget movies. But that self-aware joke in the first few minutes of director McG’s film places it firmly in its time and place, as does the actor delivering it, LL Cool J in a cameo as a disguise worn by secret agent Dylan Sanders (Drew Barrymore). The two movies in McG’s Charlie’s Angels series (the first was followed by 2003’s Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle) might be the quintessential blockbusters of the TRL era, representing the height of success for their director and their three stars (Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, and Lucy Liu).
McG got his start as a buddy of Total Request Live favorites Sugar Ray, launching his career as a director with music videos for them and other MTV-friendly rockers, including Smash Mouth and The Offspring. His Charlie’s Angels movies (especially Full Throttle) feel like candy-colored music-video compilations, eschewing narrative logic in favor of nearly abstract celebrations of goofiness and female bonding. The soundtracks are full of contemporary MTV favorites, from Korn (whose “Blind” opens the first movie) to Destiny’s Child (who recorded “Independent Women” specifically for Charlie’s Angels). It might be a stretch to call these movies feminist, but with Barrymore as producer (she’s the one who recruited McG to direct) and all three stars as creative influences, they embody a very ’00s sense of girl power, somewhere near the intersection of the Spice Girls and Xena: Warrior Princess.
That means dialogue full of silly double entendres (“You can just feel free to stick things in my slot,” Diaz’s Natalie Cook tells her mail carrier in the first movie), Diaz dancing around in superhero Underoos, and lots of slow-motion hair flips and martial arts in high heels. But it also means that the three women are always in charge of how they present themselves, and their love interests (played by a very ’00s collection of stars including Luke Wilson, Matt LeBlanc and, uh, Tom Green) are harmless puppy dogs who hang on their every word and action. The first movie even has a sort of male version of a femme fatale in Sam Rockwell’s tech magnate Eric Knox, who initially hires the Angels to save him from a greedy rival (Tim Curry), only to turn out to be the actual evil mastermind himself (which he reveals after sleeping with Dylan).
The twists and turns of the plot are not really the point of these movies, especially in the nearly incomprehensible Full Throttle, in which the narrative is almost as impressionistic as the visuals. The broad structures parody contemporary action-adventure movies like the James Bond and Mission: Impossible series, along with the original Charlie’s Angels, whose episodes were often built on paper-thin plots. At the same time, the three stars bring some genuine emotion to the relationship among the Angels, which is sweet, playful and supportive, whether it’s Dylan and Alex (Liu) encouraging the socially awkward Natalie to ask out bartender Pete (Wilson), or Alex and Natalie rallying around Dylan when she’s confronted by her mobster ex-boyfriend Seamus O’Grady (Justin Theroux).
That tone extends to the images, in which the Angels are almost always meticulously attired and positioned to complement each other. That can be in a throwaway gag like seeing the trio dressed as welders as Irene Cara’s theme song from Flashdance plays on the soundtrack, or in Full Throttle’s stunning, elaborately choreographed dirt-biking sequence (complete with cameos from power couple Pink and Carey Hart), which should have won the top honor at the MTV Video Music Awards, had it been eligible. While the movies certainly trade on the stars’ sex appeal, it’s often played for comedy, and the characters are as brainy as they are beautiful (albeit still in a slightly cartoonish way). Natalie’s absurdly detailed knowledge of birds plays an integral role in solving key mysteries in both movies.
What makes these movies more lasting than a Sugar Ray video is the chemistry among the three stars, all of whom have since left blockbuster movies behind. Diaz has been retired from acting entirely since 2014, and watching these movies makes that absence seem all the more tragic. Her overconfident, gawky dancing may have become a sort of pop-culture joke (and would certainly have been a meme, had such things existed in 2000), but that kind of commitment to dumb comedy is what made Diaz as a star, and she clearly has a partner in crime in Barrymore, who’s never been afraid to take a bit too far. Liu was the least famous of the three at the time, and she’s perhaps called upon too often to be the stoic badass, but she gets some great comic moments in Full Throttle opposite John Cleese as Alex’s befuddled dad (the Angels would be right at home in the Ministry of Silly Walks).
A pre-fame Melissa McCarthy (still working hard in a supporting role on Gilmore Girls) shows up in a bit part in the first movie, as a flustered corporate functionary bowled over by the confident, glamorous Angels. In 2015’s Spy, McCarthy and director Paul Feig parodied and deconstructed the idea that female secret agents needed to be impossibly sexy and fashionable, and it’s hard to imagine that image being presented with a straight face in 2019 (there will almost certainly be no underwear-dancing in the new Charlie’s Angels reboot). McG’s career quickly sputtered out after his attempt to graduate to bigger franchise filmmaking with 2009’s Terminator Salvation, and he’s now making straight-to-Netflix B-movies. Barrymore is hosting a talk show, Liu is playing supporting roles on TV, and Diaz is enjoying her well-earned retirement. Their pop-cultural peak is nearly forgotten now, but for a moment, these Angels defied the laws of physics and soared.