The Avengers

Oh, Mrs. Peel, what have they done to you? It’s been a bad month for my 60’s icons. Shari Lewis. Roy Rogers. Buffalo Bob Smith. And now Emma Peel. What have I done to deserve this? It took Hollywood over thirty years to smarten up and bring the campy 60’s television show “The Avengers” to the big screen, and this is what they come up with? Oh, the horror. Oh, the humanity.

“The Avengers” holds a place near and dear to my heart. I was only ten when I first started watching the Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg installments of the popular British series. Along with “The Man From Uncle” and “The Girl from Uncle” (the 60’s weren’t very politically correct), “The Avengers” was one of my favorite shows.

Who could resist the suave and debonair John Steed (Macnee) and the smart and sexy Emma Peel (Rigg)? Sharply written with more than its tongue-firmly-in-cheek, “The Avengers” was a kick, and then some. It’s fantastic stories (electric men and invisible men) were told with conviction and style. The movie is all style and no conviction.

The Don MacPherson screenplay is trite and overbearing, filled with tiresome double entendres that are supposed to pass as witty repartee. It doesn’t pass anything except as a test in patience and tolerance.

There’s so much that’s wrong with “The Avengers” it’s hard to know where to begin. First there’s Ralph Fiennes’ John Steed. Goodness knows he looks great in a dapper suit and a bowler (and even out of them in a gratuitous steam room scene). He even carries his trusty and versatile umbrella with assurance when it’s not stuck up his rear end. That’s right, you heard it here first. Fiennes needs to lighten up. He has no fun with the role. He’s like a Disneyland audio- animatronics version of the character, nice to look at but very mechanical. Fiennes is a very good actor, but he hasn’t been this stiff since he hit puberty.

Then there’s Uma Thurman as Emma Peel, the brilliant scientist who is good at getting out of tight places and into tight outfits. Long before Julie Newmar slipped on the Catwoman suit on television’s “Batman,” Diana Rigg was already on the prowl. I applaud the director’s choice to cast a redhead in the role, but Thurman disappoints. Nicole Kidman would have been a much better choice. To make matters worse, Thurman is forced to wear horrid eye shadow that would scare drag queens. This from a character with impeccable taste? I think not.

There’s another problem with the film. Even though the time frame is the present, the writer and director have set most of the action in a make-believe London trapped in a thirty year time warp. Director Jeremiah Chechik (“Benny & Joon”) tries to recreate on a large scale and with an enormous budget the look and feel of the series. The irony is, “The Avengers” series derived it’s specific look (limited sets, no extras) due to budget constraints. So what you end up with is an expensive attempt to look thrifty.

Stuart Craig’s production design is exquisite. The film has a larger-than-life glossy look that is perfectly captured by director of photography Roger Pratt. Filled with imaginative sets and some genuinely thrilling action sequences, “The Avengers” tries hard to redeem itself.

Wish the same could be said for Sean Connery as Sir August De Wynter, one of those mad scientists who has come up with a way to create and change the weather on command. Thank goodness there’s lots of scenery around, because Connery feasts on it like it was marinated with a good Scotch. Connery is so over the top (this is the first time he’s played the villain) it’s not funny.

MacPherson’s script pairs up Steed and Peel to stop the evil De Wynter, who lives in a country estate bigger than his ego and controls the weather from one of those elaborate, how did he manage to build that huge thing without the world knowing about it, villain lairs.

It’s all very stylish, and the final confrontation that pits Steed and Peel against De Wynter has all the trimmings of grand entertainment. Point the finger at director Chechik, whose previous credits could not have prepared him for such a major undertaking.

He’s better at little personal dramas (“Benny & Joon”) or patented comedy (“National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation”). He’s in way over his head with “The Avengers.” He can’t fall back on his strengths because the character development and stabs at humor in the film never mature. It’s all style with no substance, and on that playing field, he seems totally lost.

There are moments that come close to the original series. I especially liked the wild car chase where Steed and Peel are being pursued by mechanical killer bees.

The supporting cast fares better. Jim Broadbent has some nice moments as Mother, the leader of “The Ministry,” the top secret agency with offices under the Thames River. Broadbent is always a joy to watch. I also liked Eileen Atkins’ feisty Alice, and an invisible (you heard me right) Patrick Macnee as an agent who is heard but never seen.

The best part of the film? The fascinating title credits by Imaginary Forces that deserve a much better film.



Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman, Sean Connery, Jim Broadbent, Fiona Shaw, Eddie Izzard, Eileen Atkins in a film directed by Jeremiah Chechik. Rated PG-13. 103 Min.


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