Along with being the best — okay, the only — teenage lesbian superspy movie to date, "D.E.B.S." is also sweet and surprising. It's funny in an off-hand, unassuming way, and you root for it to work. And it does, pretty much. In a year that's so far been littered with, shall we say, undistinguished Hollywood product, this film is a cheering reminder of what can be done by clever people with a small budget and a lot of enthusiasm.
The premise is cute, but don't be afraid. Hidden inside the annual S.A.T. test is a secret, government-funded sub-test that identifies girls who have special talents for lying, cheating, fighting and killing. High scorers are taken to a secret paramilitary D.E.B.S. academy, where they're trained in the arts of espionage and the wearing of short Catholic-schoolgirl-type plaid skirts. (D.E.B.S. stands for "Discipline, Energy, Beauty, Strength" — pretty limp, but anything for a zippy acronym.)
At the end of four years of training, blond and brainy Amy Bradshaw (Sara Foster) is questioning her commitment to the program, and to her lunkhead fellow-spy boyfriend, Bobby, with whom she has in fact recently broken up. ("He was just so boring.") Amy tries to keep her doubts from the other members of her squad: tough-girl Max (Meagan Good), ditzy little Janet (Jill Ritchie) and chain-smoking French sexpot Dominique (Devon Aoki). Fortuitously, Amy's personal issues are sidelined when it's learned that the world's most dangerous super-villain, Lucy Diamond (Jordana Brewster), who went underground after masterminding a failed plot to sink Australia a few years earlier, is back on the scene. The D.E.B.S. are dispatched to bring her in.
Lucy, a sleek brunette with a seductive smile (and a lot of lip gloss), is having problems of her own. It's been two years since she was dumped by her last girlfriend, and she's lonely. Her concerned henchman, Scud (Jimmi Simpson), is trying to fix her up with a beautiful Russian assassin, but Lucy's nervous. "Why is it I can hold the whole world hostage," she asks him, "and I'm scared of going on one stupid blind date?" "Because," Scud replies, with an impressively straight face, "love is harder than crime."
Unbeknown to Lucy, her dinner date with the brassy blond assassin takes place under the eyes of the D.E.B.S., who are stationed — ridiculously, of course — on swings hanging high above Lucy's table. (Squinting down at the decked-out villainess, Janet says, "I have that sweater she's wearing, in taupe.")
The date goes badly. In fact, it ends in gunfire. But in the course of much confusion, Lucy comes face to face with Amy — and it's love at first sight. For Lucy, at least. Amy has never considered the possibilities of gay romance. She is, however, writing a thesis on the notorious Lucy for a course called "Capes and Capers: Gender Reconstruction and the Criminal Mastermind," so she's not entirely uninformed on the subject. Lucy spirits Amy and Janet (who's drawn the interest of the lovable Scud) to a faraway bad-guys bar, where they bond over beers and nearly kiss — to Janet's horror. ("You're so busted!" she squeaks.)
Amy eventually realizes she really is drawn to Lucy, to the amazement of her fellow D.E.B.S. ("You're not as boreeng as I thought," says the deadpan Dominique, in her dense French accent.) Will the star crime-fighter and the internationally infamous evildoer ever get together? What about Janet and Scud? And what will Amy do about the doltish Bobby, who's still sniffing around? ("Listen," he says, "I been thinkin'. That lezzie thing? Kinda hot.")
Is this a dumb movie? Hey — was "Charlie's Angels" a dumb movie? "D.E.B.S." is of course a take-off on that film (there's even a Charlie figure, played by Michael Clarke Duncan), but it has none of the self-conscious hipness of big stars slumming with junky material. It has appealing actors, some good lines, and a nice little soundtrack, too (Goldfrapp, the Cure, the Only Ones). It's good-natured and romantic, and, best of all, maybe, there's nothing winkingly "hip" about it. How hip is that?