The Awesome, Empty Return of the Power Puff Gang

My immigrant mother didn't live to see "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle," and, not being exactly a member of the key demographic group, her attendance would hardly have been a sure thing in any case.

But if she had gone, I think I know what her response would have been. "In America," she often said, her voice rich with weary scorn, "if you're tired, you know you've had a good time."

Which is by way of saying that this sequel to 2000's remake of the 1970s U.S. television series about feminine crimefighters is one of the most exhausting good-time movies ever made. As insistent as it is skillful -- and it is very skillful -- it does all it can to pound you into enjoying yourself. The result is rather like being force-fed a meal of your favorite foods by the Terminator.

This is intended less as a criticism ("Angels" exists in a sphere well outside of that) than as something of an expression of awe, an emotion akin to what's felt standing before an ICBM or some other weapon of mass destruction. You have to admire how it's been put together and what it can do, but you're not at all sure you want to have it done to you.

Despite the fact that a group of gifted professionals created exactly the cinematic effects they were after, it's hard to take great pleasure in what's been achieved. This film's accomplishments may be formidable, but they're also unavoidably slick, mechanical and not a little cold. No matter how frequently Angels Alex (Lucy Liu), Dylan (Drew Barrymore) and Natalie (Cameron Diaz) ostentatiously throw back their heads and roar with delight, their film feels removed from any genuine pleasure. In a word, its thrills are joyless, its laughter hollow.

Aside from the starring trio, also returning from the first film are John Forsythe as the voice of Charlie, Luke Wilson and Matt LeBlanc as the loyal, understanding boyfriends every heroine needs and Crispin Glover as the mysterious Thin Man. Not back is Bill Murray, whose spot as the Angels' ramrod Bosley has been taken by the gifted Bernie Mac.

Equally fungible is the "Angels" plot, concocted by John August and Cormac Wibberley & Marianne Wibberley. Involving a handful of evildoers and dangers from the trio's individual and collective pasts, it is less a cohesive story line than a sturdy clothesline on which are strung individual action episodes that play like the top-of-the-line music videos they in truth are.

In this as in all other things is visible the hand of returning "Angels" director McG. He makes no apologies about coming from the world of commercials and music videos, and there is no reason he should. One of the best of those transfers, McG is extremely good at getting the physical mechanics of filmmaking to work like a top, and if that's all you're looking for in a theatrical feature, he is your man.

Since it just so happens that that's pretty much all the studios are looking for, what McG has done with "Angels" can be legitimately viewed as the state of the art in popular entertainment. When you detail the components that make this film tick, you're talking about what Hollywood thinks is of value.

First and foremost are a series of "kids, don't try this at home" physical stunts, accomplished with computer-generated assistance and better produced than most military invasions. They do, however, come at a cost: American Cinematographer reports that "Angels" shot a record 1.6 million feet of film, considerably more than the 1.2 million previous record-holder "Titanic" used.

Then come a welter of popular culture references, signifying an ability to connect to a demographic that does not include my mother. "Angels" nods to obsessions like professional wrestling, motocross, monster trucks, surfing, skateboarding and burlesque, all without breathing hard.

Paralleling this panoply of persistent hipness are cameos by the likes of the Olsen twins, former television Angel Jaclyn Smith, the singer Pink and Bruce Willis, plus a choice part as an ex-Angel for Willis' ex, Demi Moore, back from a six-year hiatus that's being treated in the American press like the second coming of Eva Peron.

Even more noticeable is the film's relentless teasing sexuality. Few opportunities are lost to put the Angels in skimpy outfits -- to have them, for instance, go undercover as exotic dancers to give the camera an excuse it doesn't really need to be hypnotized by bumps and grinds. There's also so much self-congratulatory double-entendre humor that the film all but gives itself a special award for wit for naming a character Helen Zass.

It's hard to know what's more dispiriting about all this: the enviable skill with which it's done, the avidity with which it will likely be greeted by its target audience or the shrewd calculation behind simultaneously appealing to women's desire to feel empowered at any cost and men's passion for hot bodies in motion. It's all supposed to be good fun, but why does "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle" feel like it's throttling the audience, choking the life out of simple entertainment by trying so hard to make pleasure a business? If this kind of film can't feel even slightly human, maybe the Matrix has triumphed after all.