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Legally Blonde 2:

Anyone who thinks that Drew Barrymore is wasting her producer’s credentials bringing Charlie’s Angels to the big screen hasn’t been to the movies much lately. Her heartfelt, dizzy-dame approach treats the summer fireball thriller like a glorious playground in which her zaniest and most serious pet ideas can frolic, and she’s found a director—the much-mocked McG, he of the pretentious name and music-video credentials—to realize that vision with sweetness, humor, and pizzazz.

Awkward, obfuscating angles; jump cuts so fast no images register; annoying badass music; and overall pointlessness have driven the formerly robust action genre into a concrete barrier. McG, a master of condensation both visual and narrative, makes every cut, every remark, every explosion count. Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle doesn’t rely too heavily on its chases and fights; it incorporates them into the plot-stream—you’re not jolted by the silence and stillness after each action frenzy.

As for that plot, well, it’s as convoluted as the previous one. A couple of rings encoded with the whereabouts of everyone in the federal witness-protection program have gone rogue, and it’s up to the Angels—Barrymore’s reformed white-trash queen, Dylan; Lucy Liu’s kickass daddy’s girl, Alex; and Cameron Diaz’s clumsy charmer, Natalie—to retrieve them before they can be sold to the crime groups the witnesses are hiding from. Suspects include a surfer dude; the Thin Man (who’s Crispin Glover essentially playing himself, to give you an idea of how very weird the character is); and Demi Moore as Madison Lee, an old-time Angel returned to show off how anorexia and a purported $350,000 worth of plastic surgery can preserve a girl well into her…um, 40. The Angels also have a giddy and useful new Bosley in Bernie Mac—he sort of herds the subsidiary characters around so we don’t forget how busy the plot is.

Full Throttle isn’t about action for the sake of vicarious thrills; as in its predecessor, the action is a metaphor for the women’s power as well as a direct expression of it. They keep trying to save the world, but they’re distracted by expectations: Dylan is trying to outrun her past and preserve her identity. Alex’s dad (John Cleese!) takes hilarious pains to be supportive of her work, which he believes to be undercover action of another kind. Even the blissful Natalie has her share of difficulty: To a man the Angels have just rescued, who marvels at the chicks’ unexpected ability to kick butt, she remarks, “Yeah, we get a lot of that.”

The secret of their strength is the girls’ friendship and fortitude, tested and forged anew in sequences of banter so funny, silly, and genuine that they put those measured minxes of Sex and the City to shame. Along the way there are insane sendups, tossed off with the what-the-hell good nature that fuels this movie: a CSI parody in which Diaz poses as butch investigator, jabs at Gangs of New York and Cape Fear that aren’t just random gags but acknowledgements of the sparks thrown up by iconic moviemaking. If carried just a tad further, McG seems to be winking, this would look just like that. Even the scenes shot in The Matrix’s bullet time are played for laughs—this is the new slo-mo, and McG takes the opportunity to fit in all kinds of unlikely action while the camera spins prettily.

For her part, Barrymore is doing more than raking in cash and tapping her toe between art-film projects such as Donnie Darko and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind—the latter actually a far more conventional movie than Full Throttle, and one in which her acting isn’t at all superior to the complex, winning line readings and facial expressions she throws out here. She’s rewriting the book on how Hollywood treats girly-girls, and if it takes many, many, many shots of Diaz’s stupendous ass to make the point, so be it.

This is a movie that horndog guys can see with their girlfriends; or rather, that smart gals should take their red-blooded fellas to see. Either way, no one gets ripped off. The climactic battle takes place atop a Hollywood Boulevard movie theater, and the participants demolish it with a new-broom glee that stops the breath. The destruction of Hollywood as we know it is as sublime as it is necessary and hilarious: Burn, Hollywood, burn! Drew Barrymore is in town, and she doesn’t need a gun to get her way.

In the two years since Legally Blonde became a fluky summer hit, the suits, scribes, and stars had the opportunity to build a new Blonde, one with a little more structural steel and less throwaway padding, with more rounded characters and even thinner stilettos. Though it’s always a pleasure to have Reese Witherspoon dimpling down at us during the dog days of smash-’em-up blockbusters, Legally Blonde 2: Red White & Blonde shows that the opportunity was somewhat wasted. The film hits all the marks established by its predecessor, but it doesn’t allow the heroine we’ve grown fond of to grow up.

In the original, Witherspoon’s Elle Woods surprised and impressed everyone, including herself, by finding the flexible intelligence beneath the surface of a spoiled, unambitious Bel Air golden girl. It wasn’t the best of recent underrated-blonde films—Clueless and Bring It On still hold top honors—but it did manage to create a real sense of vindicated good cheer as Elle conquered Harvard Law School, her first court case, and her own misguided heart. Even better, all of these triumphs were predicated on her deep and passionate understanding of beauty rituals.

The sequel takes place two years later. For those who didn’t rent the first one before buying tickets to the second, cheesy exposition fills in the gaps—the pages of a scrapbook, which looks like a pink riot, are flipped as voice-overs coo things such as “And there she is graduating from Harvard Law School.” Elle is now an associate in a Boston law firm, engaged to the hunky but down-to-earth Emmet Richmond (Luke Wilson), and expecting a promotion. All is right in Elle’s world; after all, for girls like her, planning a wedding calls for more cunning and taste than actually having one.

Director Charles Herman-Wurmfeld (Kissing Jessica Stein) loses control of the film’s first 15 minutes. He dashes at breakneck speed through the explanation of Elle’s current situation and pauses for breath only after she’s fired, which is when the story really begins. Appalled at the discovery that some cosmetics companies test their products on animals, Elle takes her fight to Washington, brandishing “Bruiser’s Bill” in its powder-scented folder and swaying all those dark-suited, disapproving tightasses with her spunk and charm.

To watch the splendiferously rosy Elle take on these smirking, imagination-free bullies is vaguely rousing, but they’re the same bullies as before, only now they’re senators and earnest Hill workers instead of law professors and earnest students. Elle seems to have learned nothing during her professional years—she’s as gauche and inappropriate on her first day on the Hill as she was in court. Red White & Blonde coasts on the assurance of our reflexive support, jettisoning good ideas—Elle talks of an economic incentive to ending cosmetic testing on animals but never produces the numbers—in favor of a couple of grand, contentless speeches about making one’s voice heard. Even the premise feels tired and dated—surely Elle’s intimate knowledge of beauty products would have brought her into contact with the eco-friendly cosmetic philosophy that now rules the industry.

Witherspoon is lovelier than ever, and she radiates both intelligence and good nature, but the film depends wholly on her, forcing her perky grin or confuzzled frown to carry virtually every moment. The joke on everyone who underestimates Elle is that she’s not the cartoon she looks like, but the joke on the audiences is that everyone and everything else in the movie is. We—and Elle—are ready for a smarter Blonde. CP