Angel Cake 

Charlie’s Angels delivers Hong Kong action thrills without serving the bogus spirituality. Don’t let Spike Lee see Bagger Vance, but catch The Yards before it departs.  

Charlie’s Angels
Directed by McG
Columbia Pictures

The Legend of Bagger Vance
Directed by Robert Redford
DreamWorks SKG

The Yards
Directed by James Gray
Miramax Films

The buzz on the new Charlie’s Angels picture has been scarily bad. Heads, it is said, will roll. Studios will fall. Reputations will never recover. One of my favorite readers (now a good TV writer) even e-mailed to say the movie was this decade’s Hudson Hawk (1991): overwrought, incoherent, and embarrassingly unfunny. “Oh, goody,” I thought. “Another Battlefield Earth to disembowel!” Then I saw the film and something bizarre happened—something I’m still at a loss to account for.

I loved it.

Maybe there is a Blair Witch, and she’s getting her revenge for my evisceration of Book of Shadows: BlairWitch 2. Maybe, like the dupes in that sequel, I spent 90 minutes watching something that wasn’t really there: a charming, hyper-energetic, and wittily self-aware action comedy about gorgeous girls (Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, and Lucy Liu) who have sex, wear outlandish disguises, and perform cool, Matrix-style martial arts. Charlie’s Angels is like a Hong Kong flick but without the bogus spirituality and excruciating schlock-pop ballads. It’s giddy and over-the-top and rather intoxicated with itself. And it’s so, so Drew.

Barrymore co-produced it, and she brings to the party a whiff of amateurishness—which I mean in the most reverent sense. The actress is meltingly cute, has crack comic timing, and can execute those Jackie Chan moves (she does some stunts herself) with startling fluency. But she also has a slight speech impediment and a trace of nerdy self-consciousness, and 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. The Angels of the old series were mannequins who never looked happy being coiffed and dressed and posed for the camera. They weren’t calling the shots, whereas Barrymore emphatically is. She clearly sees no contradiction in the notion that women can be fashion plates and rule. And the movie takes its tone from her delight.

That’s an enormous change from the series, which I—along with lots of other adolescent boys and adolescent-boys-at-heart—tuned in to shamefully, on the sly. Week after week, it was hopelessly terrible. There was little in the way of eroticism, and although the Angels were often in jeopardy, no one ever really mussed them up. In some ways, the show had more of a stake in teasing you and leaving you frustrated, so that you’d tune in next week in hopes of finally getting off. The action, meanwhile, was as poorly and half-heartedly staged as any soft-core porn flick, and it never engendered a healthy admiration of female prowess. If anything, this series about girls who routinely foiled smug chauvinists left you more smugly chauvinistic than when you’d tuned in.

The new movie doesn’t deconstruct the series, the way the fun The Brady BunchMovie (1995) did. It simply fulfills the show’s original promise of smart, sexy, badass babes. They’re still summoned by the mysterious, unseen Charlie Townsend (still with the voice of John Forsythe), who’s like the Hugh Hefner of crime-fighters—dispatching bunnies to service his clients. But these Angels often come from the beds of boyfriends or one-night stands now: They have sexual autonomy. Their Bosley isn’t the house eunuch—he’s Bill Murray, a lewd hipster who’s obviously aroused and has to sublimate like mad just to get his job done. The Angels still flirt to conquer, but this time it’s more knowing, an ironic display of subservience en route to kicking butt.

The plot? It has something to do with a kidnapped software magnate (Sam Rockwell), his steely vice president (Kelly Lynch), and a “creepy thin man” (Crispin Glover) who might be working for a rival high-tech baron (Tim Curry)—but who cares about all that? More to the point, the big set pieces are out of Mission: Impossible (1996) except faster and less pretentious, like brash vaudeville turns. And there isn’t a funnier scene this year than the one in which Liu—flanked by Diaz and Barrymore in three-piece suits and mustaches—poses as a business-efficiency expert and whacks her long rod on the desks of trembling bureaucrats. The movie manages to wink at you incessantly without slipping into camp. Barrymore, the picture’s soul, simply doesn’t have the cynicism for camp.

The director, a music-video wizard who goes by the moniker “McG,” has an original and breathless syntax. His style can be fragmented, but he can also blend those fragments into something magically fluid. He knows when to speed the action up and when to slow it down, and just for a goof he’ll even freeze it in midleap. He worships the human body in flight, especially when it’s Cameron Diaz’s body and those long stems are improbably parallel to the ground. Diaz plays the dizzy blonde, and she’s sunny and effervescent and indefatigably cheerful. She brings off the movie’s riskiest gag: Girlishly flustered when a potential beau (Luke Wilson) calls on her cell phone, she simultaneously dithers and wipes the floor with a horde of kickboxing baddies.

OK, it’s not all so rosy. I never got on Tom Green’s mental-defective wavelength, and Bill Murray often tries too hard—the girls are actually the better comedians. My ideal action picture would have more blood. But really—what’s not to love? If the Blair Witch had something to do with what I saw at Charlie’s Angels, then maybe she’s a force for good. And if a security camera reveals that at that screening I also hacked up Rex Reed without realizing it, well … she’s still a force for good.

The Legend of Bagger Vance, directed by Robert Redford from the best seller by Steven Pressfield, is really not so bad as long as you go in expecting a load of burnished New Age drivel. The movie is about a former Savannah, Ga., golf champ who watches his buddies slaughtered in World War I and loses his faith in order and meaning in the universe—thus “losing his swing.” He creeps back home, becomes a drunk, and spends the next 15 years in morbid dissolution. This washed-up alcoholic is played by Matt Damon, who hasn’t seen 30—he must have won his matches when he was 9.

Anyway, a caddy called Bagger Vance (Will Smith) emerges from the shadows of night to razz him with Zen homilies into getting his swing—i.e., his faith—back in time for a big-deal tournament with the two most revered golfers of the Depression era, Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch) and Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill). In the course of the film, Bagger explains that your grip on your club is like your grip on the world and that the rhythm of the game is the rhythm of life, and if that doesn’t set off your metaphor detector (mine was sounding like a car alarm), he also explains that you don’t choose the perfect shot—that it already exists and you just have to get out of the way and let it choose you.

It would be easy to snicker at this worldview, but most great athletes have a touch of Zen in their outlook—they know that they can’t compete with nature, that at the moment of action they have to stop deliberating and go with the grain of the universe. What throws me out of the movie isn’t so much the smiling pantheistic black Obi-Wan (although he’ll drive Spike Lee crazy) or even the idea that you can’t swing a golf club without faith in the oneness of everything. It’s Redford’s hambone filmmaking. It’s those Norman Rockwell compositions and period costumes that look like period costumes. It’s the mystical sunsets and the godlike white light. It’s how, when Damon finally gets in “perfect harmony with the field,” he connects in a shimmering Dolbyized whoooooosh and then we suddenly get a choir of angels and the ball’s-eye-view as it arcs heavenward.

Has Redford always been so square? Apart from Charlize Theron in the first half-hour—she’s delightfully brazen when she has to take on the Savannah town elders to get her golf match going—the movie is one dead, overcomposed scene after another. As a director, Redford makes the most obvious conceivable choices. He must have thought that too much imagination would get in the way—that he should just let the perfect film shot choose him. Evidently, the universe has seen a lot of bad movies.

The Yards won’t be around much longer, but this slow, quiet film doesn’t deserve its slow, quiet death. James Gray’s bleak and fitfully impressive drama revolves around a young New York parolee, Leo (Mark Wahlberg), who is unwittingly drawn into the thicket of corruption that attends the awarding of city contracts. Early on, Leo sits outside the office of his Uncle Frank (James Caan), who owns a plant that manufactures subway parts, and glimpses through his door the grave politicians making their hush-hush deals. In the background, you can hear the echo of machinery and loudspeakers and the distant rumble of trains—an omnipresent sound. The milieu is a character here: The air itself is so heavy that light can barely pass through, and Leo moves like a groggy somnambulist. Needing money to support his frail, impoverished mother (Ellen Burstyn), he ends up trailing after his old pal and uncle’s chief palm-greaser, Willie (Joaquin Phoenix), from whom he learns the art of building a business in an unjust world. He follows Willie and a gang of thugs to the Sunnyside, Queens, subway yards, where they routinely sabotage their competitors’ trains to make sure that the next contract goes to them. What happens in the yards is a turning point—an act of bloodshed that makes Willie a fugitive from his own family.

This is not a Quentin Tarantino gangster picture. Its score, by Howard Shore, is classical; its tone yearning and melancholy; its action unsensational. Gray works studiously to avoid being lurid or trashy. Maybe a little too studiously: Wahlberg’s Leo is such a plodding, impassive, fundamentally decent prole that The Yards doesn’t achieve the intensity it might have had if he’d been momentarily seduced by the promise of wealth. But the payoff for the audience is the excitement of a drama without villains, in which the bad guys seem as trapped in a forest of corruption as the good ones, and the hero—like Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) in On the Waterfront (1954)—is the one who has the courage to exercise free will. The cast could hardly be better, especially Charlize Theron as Leo’s heartbreaker of a cousin, who somehow clings to a vision of goodness amid the murk. Most haunting of all is Caan, who has never given a performance this layered. His Frank has a big house in Jamaica Estates and clearly loves the good life: the dark paneling and big leather easy chairs and the fat cats who at civic functions firmly clasp his hand. He’s a man whose corruption is so casual that when he’s called on to do something truly and flagrantly awful, he can’t bring himself to do it. He turns out to be the biggest somnambulist of all.