Sony // 2005 // 91 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Mitchell Hattaway (Retired) // July 8th, 2005
They're crime-fighting hotties with killer bodies.
Shouldn't a spoof be smarter than the films it spoofs? Well, this one isn't.
Hidden in the Scholastic Aptitude Tests are questions designed to test a person's ability to lie, cheat, and kill. Those who score high enough on the test are offered a shot at enrolling in the D.E.B.S. Academy, an elite school for college-age spies. The best-of-the-best at the school are Max (Meagan Good, The Cookout), who's her squad's leader; Janet (Jill Ritchie, Breakin' All the Rules), the requisite ditzy one; Dominique (Devon Aoki, Sin City), the team's resident slut; and Amy (Sarah Foster, The Big Bounce), who's the only person in history to get a perfect score on the recruiting exam. The four friends are assigned to tail Lucy Diamond (Jordana Brewster, The Fast and the Furious), a supervillian who has reappeared on the world domination scene after a year's absence. Amy and Lucy come face-to-face in the heat of battle, but each is unable to take down her opponent. Seems they kinda want to get to know each other, if you know what I mean.
You know what? If D.E.B.S. hadn't been promoted as a spoof, I'm not sure I would have known it was meant to be a spoof, and I'm still not sure exactly what is being spoofed. During the film's (very brief) theatrical release, I kept hearing it touted as a send-up of the Charlie's Angels films, but I can't imagine why anyone would attempt such a thing. How do you poke fun at films that didn't take themselves seriously to begin with? The Angels movies were big, loud, and dumb (notice I didn't say they were actually entertaining), but they had their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks. The attractive actresses with big guns and schoolgirl uniforms might suggest some jabs at many anime titles, or possibly even the works of Luc Besson, but I don't really see that, either. In the end, though, I guess it doesn't really matter what the film's targets are, because it simply doesn't work on the level of a spoof. Spoofs should be witty and funny, and D.E.B.S. is neither.
D.E.B.S. began life as a comic book writer/director Angela Robinson created and distributed to her friends (Robinson says the idea originally came from a fellow NYU film student who claimed to be a real-life D.E.B.; Robinson also says she originally believed the young woman's story, although I'm not really sure why she'd care to admit that); Robinson later turned the comic into a 10-minute short that was screened to enthusiastic response at Sundance in 2003. (In interviews, Robinson has said she created the short as an attempt at an "outrageous WB-type thing." I hope she was misquoted.) Robinson toyed with the idea of turning the tale into a series of Flash Animation Web shorts, but eventually decided against that. She wrote a feature-length version of the story; Screen Gems and Sony offered her the chance to shoot it, but only if she could do it for $2 million, and in 28 days. She did, but the studio sat on the finished film for more than a year (not a good sign). The film was finally released in March 2005, at which time it died a quick death (it grossed less than a hundred grand). It arrived on DVD a little more than 10 weeks later (not a good sign). What's the lesson in all of this? Robinson had an idea, which is fine for a 10-minute short. Thing is, the feature-length version runs 91 minutes, and that initial idea still only sustains about 10 minutes of screen time. Robinson sets up to the first encounter between the Foster and Brewster characters passably enough, but after that she doesn't know what to do. The first couple of minutes are entertaining (more on that in a minute), and the rest of the first reel is watchable, but the remainder of the film is simply awful, not to mention interminable.
It's amazing how lifeless and dull this film is. I'll admit it, I'm a sucker for cute girls with big guns, and I own more than a few dumb action movies (I do enjoy my eye candy), but I couldn't wait for this film to end. D.E.B.S. should be fast and fun, but it's slow and boring. Robinson isn't much of a director, and she's even less of a writer (she also edited the film, so she really hit the hat trick here). There's a drive and energy to the opening sequence that is sorely lacking in the rest of the film, but I think that's due to the fact that the opening sequence is actually the work of an outside company. Robinson's pacing is slack, her staging of scenes is far too static, and she doesn't know how to fill a frame (I wonder if she even knows she's working in a visual medium). Things get worse when she drops in an action sequence. Spoof or not, if you're going to put a big shootout in your film, at least know how to shoot and cut the damn thing. And one more thing: Stealing a shot from Orson Welles and Gregg Toland only highlights how visually lacking the rest of the film really is.
So let's get to the script, for which Robinson apparently forgot to come up with any jokes or gags (the name of Brewster's character is what passes for clever in the script). Not only is what's here exceedingly unfunny, Robinson keeps repeating herself. If it didn't work the first time, she's more than willing to try it again and again. Not a smart move. There's nothing funny about the on-screen identification of Brewster's evil lair as an evil lair, nor is it funny in itself to name a Russian agent Ninotchka. And do we really need three asinine montages? (The last one, set to Erasure's "A Little Respect," almost kills that song.) The other half of the plot can't cut it, either, as the romance between Brewster and Foster isn't anything special. Robinson treats it rather matter-of-factly, not going out of her way to make a big deal about it (which I guess could be seen as the one somewhat smart thing she does), but it plays like a same-sex take on an old John Hughes teen flick. The characters sit around and talk about how unsatisfied they are, what they really want out of life, and a bunch of other boring nonsense. Sure they look cute together, but, as with the rest of the film, there's a lack of energy and purpose to these scenes (these scenes also drag more than the spy stuff, and that's saying something).
While watching D.E.B.S. I kept trying to think of a clever, condescending way of describing it. At first I thought I could say it's like one of those old Andy Sidaris spy chick films minus the gratuitous female nudity (try to imagine Donna Speir and Roberta Vasquez as the enemies/lovers), but that doesn't really work. I thought about it some more, and then it hit me. Change the lesbian angle to a straight romance, drop the small number of profanities, and this could very easily be a Disney Channel movie. It's that innocuous and pointless, and the writing, directing, and acting are all pretty much on the level of what you'd find in one of those pieces of nonsense. Think about it -- cast Raven Symone, Hillary Duff, along with a couple of other young, vacuous so-called actresses, and run with it. And I guess I'm not the only one to see a little of the Walt's sensibilities in this film. After all, Angela Robinson was hired to helm Herbie: Fully Loaded.
Sony has done a nice job bringing D.E.B.S. to DVD. The film was shot on digital video, the result of which is a clear, clear, solid transfer (there's some ringing in a couple of shots, but this could be the result of the poorly integrated CG effects). In a way, the transfer is a actually a little too solid, as at times it calls attention to the film's miniscule budget (the makeup jobs on the actresses look a little uneven, and the cheap CG effects look, well, cheap). There's a nice amount of surround action in the Dolby Digital track, and the dialogue is always well-anchored and intelligible, but I think the track could have been just a little bit punchier. Extras include eight minutes of deleted and extended scenes, as well as an uninformative making-of featurette. There's also a gallery of production stills, an animatic of one of Robinson's original comics (it's so small you can't read it), as well as an animatic for the film's original, abandoned opening sequence. You also get a video for The Weekend's "Into the Morning," which is one of the songs played over the closing credits (I've never heard of this band, and they've apparently never heard of chord changes). Two commentary tracks round out the extras. Robinson's commentary is in-depth and informative (or, as she puts it, geeky), covering every aspect of the creation of the film. The cast commentary is neither in-depth nor informative; imagine being in a theater full of giggling teenage girls and you'll have an idea of how this one goes (it doesn't help that the actresses' voices are indistinguishable). The fact that the original short film isn't included is a rather glaring omission. Seeing what all the initial fuss was about would have been nice.
Maybe I'm the wrong audience for this film. Maybe the satire here is so sly and subtle I just didn't get it. Maybe this really is a smart spoof of pop culture. Maybe it's actually a touching romance surrounded by a disposable plot. Nah, it's simply a failure on every level. And speaking of failures, somebody failed to notice the misspelled word on the cover. How'd that happen?
I never though I'd say this about a disc with that kind of cover art, but it's definitely guilty.
Review content copyright © 2005 Mitchell Hattaway; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted and Extended Scenes
* "Infiltrating D.E.B.S." Featurette
* Director's Commentary
* Cast Commentary
* D.E.B.S. Comic Animatic
* Production Stills
* The Weekend's "Into the Morning" Music Video
* Official Site