CHARLIE’S ANGELS

Drew Barrymore’s colorful but silly modernization of “Charlie’s Angels,” which ran on ABC from 1976 to 1981, begins with a joke about the misery inflicted on today’s audiences by pictures based on old TV shows. The ploy is obviously intended, in a self-referential postmodern fashion, to defang criticism of the movie itself, but it doesn’t quite succeed. “Angels” isn’t nearly as awful as the worst examples of the trend–“The Wild Wild West,” “The Avengers” and “Rocky and Bullwinkle” among big-budget efforts, or “Car 54 Where Are You?” and “The Beverly Hillbillies” in the quickie category. But despite its glitz, an attractively varied cast, and an effort to mate modern cinematic pizzazz with a 1970s naivete, it’s at best a brainless–and highly derivative–diversion. Although it’s being released in November, it’s really a summer film par excellence.

As in the series, the movie is about three leggy distaff detectives who crack convoluted cases while in the employ of an unseen boss named Charlie, who talks only via speakerphone to the trio and their immediate superior, a blissfully dopey fellow named Bosley. On the small screen, there were actually about six or seven angels, as actresses joined and left the cast; now the group consists of former bad-girl Dylan (Barrymore), ditsy blonde Natalie (Cameron Diaz) and intense intellectual Alex (Lucy Liu). Whatever their backgrounds, though, all share physical dexterity and fighting expertise. Their Bosley is shambling, smirking Bill Murray, and Charlie is still voiced (though in tones that occasionally sound enervated) by John Forsythe. The case which they’re called upon to break involves the kidnapping of a nerdy computer mogul (Sam Rockwell), apparently at the hands of a shady competitor (Tim Curry); Rockwell’s partner (Kelly Lynch) hires them to retrieve the guy and break into Curry’s computers to see whether important stolen software is to be found there. Much of the infiltrating and sneaking about that occurs in the course of their snooping evokes the technical outrageousness of Pierce Brosnan’s recent spy escapades or Tom Cruise’s impossible missions more than the homely old TV show on which the picture’s based–at times one might think that “Jane Bonds” would have been a more appropriate title. But the outrageously oversized antics are undoubtedly considered de rigueur in a big-budget project nowadays. (The style, especially up front, also calls to mind the nostalgically neon looniness of the “Austin Powers” flicks, though obviously at not quite so high a pitch.)

Though there’s a big twist about halfway through that puts our heroines in jeopardy (and self-referentially inflates the original show’s premise beyond endurance), it hardly makes much difference, because logic and coherence are not among the strong suits of the script at any point. The picture is basically nothing but a series of cartoonish action set-pieces, mostly utilizing the slow-motion fighting tricks originated by “The Matrix,” punctuated by goofily comedic and romantic interludes; all are carefully arranged so that each of the three stars gets to show off both her physical prowess and her spunkiness. The kung-fu fisticuffs are nicely staged, even if they do drag on a bit and seem pretty second-hand by now. Their amusement is enhanced, however, by the fact that most are done against a buffed-up Crispin Glover, woozily overplaying a snarling villain and looking rather like Mickey Rourke with a beaked nose. (The presence of Glover, who immediately calls to mind “Back to the Future,” wittily suggests the marriage of past and present represented by the picture; beyond that, he glowers and stares hilariously, and at one point even returns without explanation from certain death–a trick he’s trying to repeat professionally to resuscitate his career.) The farcical interludes, unhappily, are less successful. One might enjoy fantasizing about Diaz jiggling her derriere in scatterbrain mode, for example, but it seems decidedly retrograde the third or fourth time around; and a running gag about Liu’s inability to cook is terribly old-fashioned, proving that “female” humor hasn’t matured much over the last two decades. Murray, moreover, sails through the picture without making much of an impression. He does his usual smarmy shtick decently enough, but the material he’s been given is generally poor. There are more pleasant turns from Matt LeBlanc, as Liu’s dense he-man beau, and Luke Wilson, playing a gee-whiz waiter who’s attracted to Diaz. Tom Green, as a fisherman with whom Barrymore has a fling, is more of an acquired taste, one that viewers over a certain age probably won’t have mastered.

“Charlie’s Angels” has been directed by yet another crossover from the commercial/music-video world, in this case a fellow who calls himself simply McG, and much of the picture resembles work in those media in terms of both style and content: the movie is essentially empty-headed, but at least it moves briskly past the inanities and is vibrantly dumb rather than dull. That’s hardly a great recommendation, but as “The Avengers” proved, things could have been a lot worse. The picture closes with one final borrowing via outtakes over the closing titles, showing us flubs and alternate shots of some of the more impressive stunts. Anyone who’s even seen a Jackie Chan movie will recognize the source, but that’s okay. Along with all the earlier reminiscences to other pictures, it at least shows that the makers realize that if you’re going to steal your ideas, you might as well take them from something that worked in the first place.