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NOVEMBER 27, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 21


Edko Columbia Tristar Films.
Cheung-Yan Yuen, right, put the girls through their paces and, in Diaz's words: "made the movie by making us look good."

Giving the Angels Wings
The unflappable martial-arts master Cheung-Yan Yuen may be the real star of Charlie's Angels
By STEPHEN SHORT

ALSO
The Review

The girls are all right

When the producers of Charlie's Angels needed someone to train the film's trio of starlets—Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu—in performing credible fighting moves, they called on Cheung-Yan Yuen, a veteran martial-arts instructor who, with his brother Yuen Wo-ping of Matrix fame, has helped shape the look of Hong Kong's action movies. How did Yuen feel about the honor? "Worried," he says now, on the eve of the film's Asia opening. "My first impression was that they were going to have a really hard time." But Yuen kept his focus. He had seen the original television series and remembered the cast, especially "the long blond one," Farrah Fawcett. And so for four months in 1998 he ran the trio through the paces in the gym of the Park Plaza, an old hotel in a seedy section of Los Angeles.

The first few days were difficult. Barrymore was distracted by personal affairs. Liu, who speaks Mandarin and served as an interpreter, wasn't there for the first month. Diaz was just plain "wooden," says Yuen. "I thought Cameron was going to be the most difficult of the bunch, the slowest learner, though they were all a little scared of me. I didn't think they'd make it through the first month, never mind four." As it was, the Angels buckled down, bending their bodies places God never intended them to go.

Diaz was skeptical, too. "The first day was a nightmare," she recalls. "I'd just quit smoking. Drew and I show up at the production office. I'm wearing a very short skirt, which might have worried the Master [their pet name for Yuen] a bit, and he makes us run up and down a basketball court a couple of hundred times and make kicks. It was insane." But Yuen persevered, putting his team through their moves from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day. After spending a month focusing on basic kung fu skills they zeroed in on specific sequences for the movie. Remarkably none of the cast members was injured more seriously than, as Diaz puts it: "going to bed every night sore from head to toe."

Some of the more dramatic early moments came when the women found they couldn't pull off the assigned moves. "They'd get angry, swear and start kicking stuff around," Yuen says with a laugh. Barrymore, in particular, blew a few fuses. At one stage she appeared to hurt herself kicking over a table in frustration. Says Yuen, "I asked her at that point if she still wanted to kick over tables, and she pleaded: 'I won't, I won't, master.'" In the end, she impressed Yuen: "Of the three she had the most feminine temperament. That surprised me." That the action sequences on film turned out so dazzling, Yuen has this to say: "Remarkable."

The women call Yuen the true star of the troupe. They were his Angels, not Charlie's. "He gave the film its style. He made the movie by making us look good," says Diaz. "If there was ever a time I wasn't sure about something, he would look me in the eye and tell me he wouldn't let me do anything that wasn't safe. I trusted him the way you trust your own father." Yuen says he would be ready for a sequel—with even more action. Diaz is pumped up: "I just love this s---, everybody loves this s---." Then she thinks back to those tortuous first days: "It's like giving birth to a child. Your body won't let you remember just how painful it was." Especially when the baby is tops at the box office.

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