Films

Angels and Egos

Brian D. Johnson November 13 2000
Films

Angels and Egos

Brian D. Johnson November 13 2000

Angels and Egos

Films

Brian D. Johnson

Is movie heroism undergoing a makeover? Ever since Julia Roberts donned stiletto heels to drop-kick a corporate villain in Erin Brockovich, the women seem to be having all the fun. In Girlfight, Michelle Rodriguez takes her boxer boyfriend into the ring and pounds him into submission. Kate Hudson sashays through Almost Famous like an empowered princess even though she plays a rock ’n roll groupie who gets traded in a poker game. And in the new world of kick-ass babes, the movie of the moment is Charlies Angels—a live-action cartoon featuring a power trio of Barbie ninjas.

The men, meanwhile, are still saddled with the dreary business of playing serious heroes doing thankless jobs. If you’re Robert De Niro, a deep-sea diver in Men of Honor, that means holding your breath until your head is ready to explode—while learning to respect your African-American protégé. If you’re Matt Damon, playing golf in The Legend of Bagger Vance, it means spending long hours trying to recover your lost swing—while learning to respect your African-American caddie. These are redemptive pictures about the triumph of the human spirit, and of the male ego.

Charlie’s Angels is about as redemptive as a box of Smarties, but it’s a blast—the ultimate girls-just-wanna-have-fun confection. And although it marks yet another attempt to recycle a vintage TV series, the retro charm feels fresh. In fact, as a Hollywood action comedy starring three women, it could be called groundbreaking, even if Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu aspire to be no more than the Spice Girls of the action genre.

Compared with Ang Lee’s spectacular Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (due in December), Charlies Angels is the Fisher-Price model of female martial-arts movies, offering amusement rather than magic. But unlike so many action blockbusters, it never feels heavy-handed. The opening sequence, a skydiving stunt, is capped by a hilarious shot of Liu on a boat removing her helmet and flipping her hair in shampoo-ad slow motion. And in that one campy moment, the relief is palpable: these Angels are not going to take themselves seriously. Tom Cruise flipped his hair countless times in M:I-2, but never with a sense of humour.

Spoofing the spy genre with kung fu and cat suits, Charlies Angels is like an Austin Powers wet dream, without the toilet

I humour. Or a James Bond fantasy without the firepower j (these Angels dont carry guns). It’s as if the silhouette nudes f who drift through the opening credits of the Bond films have popped out of the background and got dressed, barely, j As crime fighters taking orders from the invisible Charlie, the Angels go undercover as geishas, belly dancers and Formula One racers. Diaz steals every scene as Natalie, the ditzy one who dreams of being a Soul Train dancer; Barrymore is Dylan, the vulnerable one who appears to have actual emotions; and Liu (AllyMcBeal) plays Alex, who gives a mean shiatsu and j bakes indestructible muffins. Yes, the jokes are dumb, but even the dumbest have an art-directed sass—as when Alex infiltrates a software empire as a dominatrix efficiency expert and mesmerizes a legion of computer geeks with her riding crop.

The men in the movie are a teddy-bear collection of losers. An unusually restrained Bill Murray doles out deadpan schtickas Bosley, the Angels’ faithful handler. Barrymore’s fiancé, Canadian Tom Green, drops in for a too-cute cameo as her rejected suitor. And her cx-boyfriend Luke Wilson plays Diaz’s love interest, a dopey bartender. The rest of the testosterone is rationed among a smooth Sam Rockwell, a villainous Tim Curry and a creepy Crispin Glover.

Directing this high-powered pyjama party is a musicvideo ace making his first feature, a man so unspeakably cool he is known only as McG. And McG has made quite the McMovie, a candied treat in which gadgets, decor and costumes are all part of the same eye-popping design.

Charlies Angels is fluff, but while pretending to have no ideas, it has at least one: babes can kick butt. The Madonna mantra of the empowered sex object comes full circle, until we have an oxymoron in the flesh: the feminist bimbo. These go-girls race cars, drive boats, skydive and scuba dive. But even their wet suits have cleavage.

Men of Honor is about the kind of divers who wear those heavy, unsexy outfits with the fishbowl helmets and long hoses. Set in the 1950s, it’s based on the true story of Carl Brashear (Cuba Gooding Jr.), who overcame extraordinary odds to became the U.S. navy’s first African-American diver. Much of the drama unfolds as a boot-camp ordeal with a twist of bigotry. The son of a Kentucky sharecropper, Brashear is determined to succeed. His sadistic instructor, a washed-up diver named Billy Sunday (De Niro), has orders from a racist brass to flunk him, but gradually warms to Brashear’s cause.

Gooding Jr. does a worthy job of playing a blandly virtu-

ous hero. And De Niro, whose character is fictional, offers another of his psycho father figures, a melodramatic flip side of the tyrant in Meet the Parents. As De Niro gets older, his twitchy intensity becomes a movie unto itself, a Balkan war raging in his brow. He’s a compelling presence, with a payoff scene in a courtroom that rivals Jack Nicholson’s in A Few Good Men. But Men of Honoris a one-note drama, straining to turn fact into myth. And whenever it tries to go deeper— with token subplots involving Charlize Theron and Aunjanue Ellis as wives of the men of honour—it gets stranded in the shallows.

The Legend of Bagger Vance, another mythic tale, features Theron in a larger but equally vapid role. And this movie is no place for a woman. Affecting a shaky accent, Theron plays a southern belle who stages an exhibition match to save the golf course she inherited from her father in Depression-era Savannah, Ga. She books the game’s two top stars, real-life legends Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen (Joel Gretsch and Bruce McGill), then persuades her old flame, Rannulph Junuh (Damon), to compete as a local hero. But after being traumatized in the trenches of the First World War, he has taken to the botde and lost his swing. Junuh’s saviour is the

beatific Bagger Vance (Will Smith), who drops out of nowhere to serve as his caddie, coach and personal shaman.

Robert Redford is the L. L. Bean of American directors, crafting plainly handsome movies about men of homespun integrity. Like A River Runs Through It'â,nà The Horse Whisperer, Bagger Vance is about Zen and the art of the perfect moment. This time, instead of casting a fly rod or taming a horse, the hero is hitting a ball. But the two-hour movie takes forever to find its own swing, wasting an hour on clunky narration, dutiful back-story and picaresque theatrics before the Big Game finally begins.

Then, though handicapped by hokum, the drama acquires the allure of any luxuriously photographed sports flick. And as Damon’s character looks for the perfect shot, so does the director, whose patient eye seems ideally suited to the game of golf. Like a young Redford, Damon conjures a quiet authenticity as a golden boy buffing away the tarnish. He looks good swinging a club, slowly appraising the shot with his eyes, and Smith is drolly understated as the sly guru-slave. But the movie, which inhabits a Deep South miraculously free of racial tension, is preposterous. As for Theron, she acts like she’s failing an audition for a Tennessee Williams play. Charlize, you’d have more fun as a Charlie’s Angel. EH

In three movies, men butt heads while women kick butt