The Avengers
Reviewed in August 1998
Director: Jeremiah Chechik. Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman, Sean Connery, Jim Broadbent, Fiona Shaw, Eddie Izzard, Eileen Atkins, Patrick Macnee. Screenplay: Don MacPherson (based on the television series by Sydney Newman).

Photo © 1998 Warner Bros. Pictures
An utterly feeble and dispiriting flop that wastes not only a trio of casting coups but, in set designer Stuart Craig (of Dangerous Liaisons and The English Patient, to name two triumphs), one of the greatest eye-poppers at work in the commercial cinema. Who saw this trailer and didn't think this project had potential? Fiennes and Thurman, of course, star as John Steed and Emma Peel, the twin towers of haute-couture espionnage originated by Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg in the famous television series. Their foe in this cinematic version is Connery's Sir August de Wynter, an outrageously monomaniacal, um, meteorologist who wishes to harness all the brute power of weather into his ever-quaking, tight-fisted hands.

Okay, so it reads strangely, but there's no reason for this premise not to work just enough to get this baby by. All three stars have their devoted followings, and the show had at least as many fans as George of the Jungle for crying out loud. Director Jeremiah Chechik, I admit, last made the reportedly-unendurable Diabolique, but surely no one would give him money for another remake if he didn't have some worthy inspirations, right? Unfortunately, The Avengers plays out as just one high-concept, high-weirdness-factor moment after another. Its signal virtue—its sole virtue, one is tempted to say—is that the move from TV to cinema has not involved any homogenization or flattening out of the quintessentially British, eccentric humor of the television show. At a conference of villains, everyone wears a neon-colored bear suit so that no one may be recognized. One of the bears is shot point-blank by a rankled comrade. Fiennes and Thurman are pursued at one point by remote-controlled, missile-shooting mechanical bees. These kinds of moments are not, at the very least, tired and familiar.

But alas, Dear Viewer, why can't more of them by funny? Jim Broadbent (The Crying Game) and the great Fiona Shaw (My Left Foot) make appearances as corrupt henchmen named Mother—that's him—and Father—that's her. Eccentric, possibly British, but not much of a gut-buster. Connery seem distinctly at a loss as to what he is to be doing, and mostly does his riff on one of the T-Rexes in Jurassic Park, stomping around and swinging as he walks a great, shaggy, pendulous bit of rabbit fur that hangs directly over his groin: apparently costume designer Anthony Powell's means of entertaining himself, though it should be noted that similar appendages exist in somewhat less exaggerated form in many traditional Scottish ensembles.

Thurman overplays her dry-wisecrack card and just seems stiff; her only consolation for her appearance here is that new hubby Ethan Hawke's Great Expectations was one of only two or three flicks in 1998 that was actually worse than this one. Fiennes fares better than Thurman and occasionally seems even to have a good time, though once Don MacPherson's script finds him in a Luke and Vader-style duel with Connery over a rampaging flood, the actor's not the only person in the theater who has stopped having any fun.

What finally defines The Avengers is its wastefulness. Eileen Atkins, the redoubtable comic actress of Cold Comfort Farm, aces a few brief appearances but her character is not allowed to continue much. (Perhaps someone showed her the rest of the script.) Craig designs some enchantingly outsize set pieces like a huge, gleaming white spiral staircase that the principals run down in a single five-second take, and then we never see it again. The single most interesting moment of The Avengers is one in which Thurman's Emma pursues a heavy into an Escher-type staircase that, shot from directly above, seems to be going downstairs but actually spirals endlessly into the same old set of stairs. Thurman finds a way out of the chamber, only to run down a familiar-looking hallway and right back into the same confounded, illusory steps. Unfortunately, this visually intriguing device is also the perfect insignia for the film: sometimes arresting to look at, but utterly clogged, uninterestingly repetitive, and not much fun after the first few minutes. Golden Razzie voters, take note. D


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