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'D.E.B.S.': High School Confidential Agents

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 25, 2005; Page C04

A cliche that happens to be (like so many cliches) true points out how much life is like high school. Angela Robinson takes that notion a further evolutionary step by pointing out that espionage and counterterrorism are just like high school.

Her movie, a spoof inside a parody concealed in a Cinnabon, is called "D.E.B.S.," and it's about a lunchroom cool-girl clique that doubles as a squad of international racket busters and spy chasers. Thus we get the tonally weird but undeniably tonic blend of very little plaid skirts and lots of M-16s with tactical flashlights aboard.

I spy something plaid: Meagan Good, left, Devon Aoki and Jill Ritchie are secret agents in the guise of not-so-innocent schoolgirls. (Bruce Bermelin -- Samuel Goldwyn Films)

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As the fanciful Robinson (who also wrote) envisions them, the "D.E.B.S." are four lissome Los Angeles lasses -- the movie invites the Playboy-prose-style alliteration -- who, by night, prowl the town on behalf of a top-secret government agency charged with national security and by day avoid homework in the halls of some kind of institute of learning. There's not a serious bone in the movie's body, but the bones of the four young women are certainly serious enough, and very straight and strong as well. The four are played by Scarlett Johansson look-alike Sara Foster, Devon Aoki (with her Asian heritage, she presumably stands in for Lucy Liu), Jill Ritchie and Meagan Good. They are all so cute they could be members of the All-America cute team. When they smile, fillings melt, strong men weep, women in comfortable shoes moan, and the editors of Maxim try to track down their agents.

And to make things even more interesting . . . the whole thing is gay.

Well, it's not gay in that in-your-face, zealous manner of so many films more interested in advocacy than art or commerce. It's gay in what might be called a homo-normative way. That is, it accepts same-sex attraction as a norm, something not at all "unusual" or strange but something so a part of the landscape it doesn't require comment. In this particular case, it's the D.E.B.S.'s arch nemesis, Lucy Diamond (picturesque Jordana Brewster, also in "The Fast and the Furious") who falls for blond D.E.B. Amy (Foster) and sets out to seduce her. But the seduction is carried out according to the rules of high school puppy love, and involves a lot of shy giggling and uncomfortable eye contact. It builds eventually to that first kiss, a cardinal moment in any young person's life, which is played at full-tilt romantic boogie, sweet enough to get on a valentine, that is, among the gunfights, raids, counter-raids, kidnappings, computer-screen scanning and other hallmarks of the action thriller.

I didn't notice it often, but there does seem to be a plot going on around all this. Hmmm, if I have this correctly, it seems the D.E.B.S. are ordered by headquarters (played as a giant high school bureaucracy and fronted by known actor Michael Clarke Duncan, who used to be a real-life bodyguard before getting a breakthrough role in "The Green Mile") to track down Lucy's group, which is an international robbery ring planning to knock over various banks and jewelry stores. To make it more Annette-and-Frankie-like, the gang's No. 2 guy also develops a crush on the D.E.B.S.'s No. 2 gal, but worries that he's not really cool enough for her, even while he's plotting getaways.

Again, none of this is played seriously and much of the fun of the innocent little thing is the riffs that Robinson plays on familiar genre strokes. A gunfight in a nightclub, with sparks flying, guns blasting, glasses busting, shooters diving, has all the hallmarks of John Woo-style mayhem in full bloom, and Robinson has also divined the secret homoeroticism concealed in the Woo oeuvre. She frequently re-creates his trademark, that double-gun-to-the-head moment (Tarantino also likes it) that expresses the hostility that love conceals and the love that hostility conceals.

The movie has already broken some news. At a film festival, a producer saw it and was so taken with it that he offered Robinson a shot at an A picture, and so she's now directing the Disney remake of "Herbie," allegedly with a lesbian twist as well. But it's easy to see why a mainstream outfit like Disney was attracted to Robinson: She is extremely slick and the movie looks extremely finished. It lacks the crudity and earnestness of the more typical indie product, and arrives with sparkly production values and extreme confidence in every scene. It's so spoofy it's difficult to call "good" or even "bad"; just say it's smooth.

D.E.B.S. (91 minutes at Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Cineplex Odeon Shirlington) is rated PG-13 for sexual content and mock violence.

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