When the first of two Charlie’s Angels movies produced by Drew Barrymore arrived in theaters in late 2000, you could practically smell the lack of enthusiasm. In the ongoing series of old television shows remade into movies, no one was exactly clamoring for more Charlie’s Angels. The film itself even points this out, with a blatant wink to the audience during LL Cool J’s pre-credits cameo. “Another movie from an old TV show,” America’s 17th-favorite rapper groans, noticing the in-flight entertainment of T.J. Hooker: The Movie. It seemed an all-too-likely attitude from the actual audience in the theater.
Which is what made the film’s critical and commercial success a minor miracle. Rather than trying to ape the vibe of the show, or retro-fitting it for the era of the serious and somber actioner, Charlie’s Angels took the inherently cartoonish premise and cranked it to 11. The movie is a bizarre melange of hacky jokes, cornball adventures, comically fake action scenes, and the three hyper-stylized (and sexualized) women at the center of it all. It shouldn’t work, and yet somehow it does. The constant winking at the audience, gratuitous hair flips, and dialogue that may as well end with Barrymore turning to the camera and flashing a thumbs-up, plays well. It’s as though the sheer lunacy of the execution sends the film through a fun-house mirror, doubling down on everything bad until it becomes good again. It’s the Rake Effect in action—do something stupid enough times, and it becomes funny again.
It’s also what makes the film series so perfect for a video game adaptation. The three characters all share certain qualities, like a mastery of disguise and requisite ass-kicking skills, but they’re also distinct and possess unique skills in service of fighting crime. There’s Dylan (Barrymore), the rough ’n tumble tomboy; Alex (Lucy Liu), the elegant and nimble perfectionist; and Natalie (Cameron Diaz), the spastic goofball. They’re bound by a premise that lends itself perfectly to a game. The three women all work for Charlie, a faceless entity who communicates with them via a speakerbox on a desk, aided by comic-relief assistant Bosley. Charlie informs the girls (his word) of their missions, whether it be protecting someone in witness protection or taking down a drug kingpin.
So when it came time to adapt the movies into a GameCube and PlayStation 2 game in 2003, there was plenty of material to work with. An all-new adventure was no problem—after all, that’s what these ladies do for a living. There could be exciting set pieces, sneaky break-in scenarios, car racing, lock-picking, mini-game puzzles… just about anything could be justified within the diegetic reality of Charlie’s Angels. So here’s what Ubisoft and developer Neko Entertainment did: took the property, ripped out its guts, and stripped it for parts. They treated Charlie’s Angels with all the respect of an especially miserly car thief.
Laughably stilted and bordering on painful, the Charlie’s Angels game has all the usual problems that plague a quickie cash-in, but the issue runs deeper in this case. It’s not for lack of access to the talent pool. All three actresses lent their voices to the adaptation, haltingly delivering exposition followed by jokes that aren’t that much worse than what they were forced to deliver for the movies. But instead of retaining any of the film’s goofy awareness of its own inanity, the game plays things straight, as though the lines were actually funny and the main characters actually serious about what they’re saying. The self-awareness that worked for the movies disappears entirely in the game.
The game’s box promises a number of things Charlie’s Angels doesn’t deliver. “You’ll need various disguises,” it warns. No, you won’t: You’re never asked to disguise yourself. “Master the different styles of all three Angels,” it teases. Not really: All you need to master is the same simple button combinations that work for all three. “Take charge of all three Angels and switch between them ‘on the fly’ in combat!” It seems the good people at Ubisoft have a different understanding of what “on the fly” means. I took it to mean that one would be able to sub in different Angels for different missions. Hey, you need someone good at kicking? Get Natalie over here! False. Natalie wouldn’t be caught dead kicking for you when you’d like her to. Making silly outsized claims could have been a fun in-joke, but instead it just adds to the feeling that the whole thing’s a joke.
The key error is that the game doesn’t realize what it is: It turns a good-natured exercise in silliness into a straight-faced punch-’em-kick-’em button masher. You could put these characters into almost any scenario and it would make sense. They suddenly have to give chase to a bad guy while on a motorcycle ducking through rush-hour traffic? Justifiable. They have to sneak past a bunch of security guards without making a sound? That is what these girls do for a living. Instead, the only thing that changes is the pixelated image of whomever Dylan, Alex, or Natalie is punching at any given moment. These Angels are so lacking in joie de vivre, it feels as though at any moment they’re going to reach into their pockets and pull out a little pixelated bottle of Prozac.
The title screen kicks things off with The Vine’s inescapable early ’00s rocker, “Get Free,” leading one to expect what follows will be frenetic and exciting. We open upon a shot of the Statue Of Liberty at night. Suddenly, a power outage plunges the city into blackness. Seconds (minutes?) later, the power returns, and Lady Liberty is gone, stolen by unseen forces. (Bizarrely, the authorities do not think to question David Copperfield.) The Arc De Triomphe, the Washington Monument—all the world’s great marvels are being stolen, and it’s up to the Angels to find them. Which seems like a rather large task for three women based in California, but at least matches the gonzo, outsized nature of the movies. News media breathlessly reports on the thefts—but sadly, it appears that the International Hareld Tribune has lost its copy editor:
The game kicks off with Natalie strutting down a makeshift runway in a red, white, and blue bikini, thus beginning the T&A portion of the game, which will not cease until the final punch is thrown. At least this first level tries to explain the revealing outfits narratively; from here on out, it’s every item of clothing for itself.
The game reduces the Angels intellectually as well. The movies made sure to depict them as fiercely intelligent, if idiosyncratic. Natalie might be an irredeemable ditz in some ways, but she could also identify rare species of birds based solely on their call. Game Natalie comes upon a mechanical drawbridge control—presumably not the most confusing piece of hardware ever loosed upon the world—and is dumbfounded. So she pulls a Fonzie: one swift kick, and it drops. She may get results, but not via her wits—or by extension, yours.
Each level is more or less identical: The three Angels slowly wend their way through a morass of interchangeable henchmen, until finally arriving at a computer, at which point one of them types for a second, and then it’s off to another interstitial scene to explain the next level. The stages just sort of peter out, rather than ending with any sort of climax or big fight. Variety was not high on Neko Entertainment’s list of priorities—at least, not as high as making sure that, even when fighting in the Alaskan tundra, Natalie doesn’t want to wear any pants.
Even with that threadbare structure guiding it, Charlie’s Angels can’t follow its own instructions. For example, level six has the Angels infiltrating the Forbidden City in the heart of Beijing, to prevent the theft of the emperor’s throne. Charlie gives them explicit instructions: Get in there undetected, and get to the throne room. Finally, a chance for the Angels to exercise that much-vaunted stealth prowess. Only, getting in “undetected” turns out to mean “Hey Dylan, run up to a bunch of goons outside the city and start kicking them, like an aggravated 8-year-old.” This could be a funny inversion of expectations if the game evinced any awareness of its own silliness.
As the Angels head to a secret lair hidden at the bottom of the Grand Canyon (Alex somehow gets there via jetpack, which seems unnecessary when heading straight down into the Earth), a series of elevated platforms leads you to a final confrontation with the evil billionaire behind these thefts. Yes, he’s been hiding the Statue Of Liberty in a bunker underneath the Grand Canyon. There should be some sort of evil billionaire award for that.
After a perfunctory fight, the Statue Of Liberty wobbles and the torch comes crashing down on our nemesis. Does the metallic cone of the torch crush Mr. McBadguy? No, somehow it traps him, the edges of the torch forming a perfect jail cell. Forget that we’ve just spent an entire game presumably kicking and punching endless goons into pulp—this gentleman must live, via the physics-defying ability to transform Lady Liberty’s torch into a Supermax. A perfect opportunity to laugh at this outlandish resolution is instead treated with a dour “justice is done.”
The failure of this woebegone Charlie’s Angels adaptation draws as much from an inability to recognize the value of its source material as it does the unsurprising rotten execution of video game basics. Even the subpar movie sequel at least understands what makes these characters fun: the self-awareness of their silliness. Dylan, Alex, and Natalie have endless versatility, combined with effervescent personalities that sparkle in the face of any obstacle. These characters were quite literally created to be put through any Earthly situation imaginable, and the only thing the game’s developers could imagine them doing is throwing punches while wearing horrendously inappropriate clothing. Performing kung-fu in unzipped jumpsuits seems like it would be tough for anyone.
Somewhere along the line, someone should have noticed what made the movie fun: how unbelievably ridiculous it is. Both the film and game are part of a fundamentally shlocky property, but only the former understands itself as such. Winking self-referentialism can be good or bad, but for a dual exercise in cheesecake glamour and cartoon action, a little ability to poke fun at yourself goes a long way.