Dateline: August 17, 1998
The big-screen movie version of the classic British adventure series The Avengers opened August 14th in North America. Warner Brothers showed an amazing lack of confidence in the movie by not having any press screenings, but that became a news story in itself. So what's the verdict? The Avengers may not be the worst movie of the year but it certainly is the worst edited. While most movies these days are at least a half hour too long, The Avengers, with a running time of just 90 minutes, at least never runs the risk of having viewers check their watches. The downside though is scenes are barely linked together and characterization is thrown right out the window. I suspect the movie is a victim of ruthless test screenings, with the studio becoming ever more nervous and demanding more cuts to anything that might distract audiences. How else can anyone explain the complete non-presence of someone on screen as the usually highly-charismatic Sean Connery as the villain Sir August de Wynter? He is utterly wasted in ways even previous turkeys such as Highlander II couldn't do to him. And what on earth would have possessed a brilliant comic such as Eddie Izzard to take on the part of an entirely silent henchman? Oh, he does get to utter one line of dialog but it won't ever be shown on television. Again I have to assume he originally had a much larger role and it was edited down to nothing. So much for the baddies. How do our heroes fare?
As John Steed Ralph Fiennes is a passable substitute for Patrick Macnee, gleefully chucking out the witty replies and daring-do while constantly keeping his cool. Uma Thurman as Emma Peel is actually given two roles in the movie, is great to look at, and changes clothes more often than Mary Tyler Moore. Of course this is the 90s now so the filmmakers can't leave well enough alone with just the merest hint of sexual innuendo. Instead, Steed and Peel have to lip lock and express their true devotion to each other. Why? Part of the charm of the original series was a lot was left to the imagination, including even the origins of the characters and who exactly they were working for. No longer. Now Steed is given his assignment by Mother (Jim Broadbent, wheelchair-bound and smoking constantly) and suspicion immediately falls upon Doctor Emma Peel, a weather scientist, who has been caught on video breaking into a top-secret installation. Of course we know Emma is innocent (as does Steed for the most part - maybe he had already read the script) but the ultimate explanation for her involvment is both confusing and unconvincing. Couldn't the movie have just started with Mrs. Peel unexpectedly getting the message from Steed, "Mrs. Peel, we're needed." and we're off?
But the real villain doesn't remain hidden for too long with the introduction of Sean Connery as de Wynter, an obvious madman clearly up to no good. There's an amusing scene with his co-conspirators with everyone disguised in giant color-coded teddy bear costumes (they resemble Teletubbies) but characters are quickly dispatched before they're even introduced. Steed and Peel are threatened by various degrees from sudden snowstorms to giant mechanized insects but the movie seems to lurch from set piece to set piece without much connecting material. Everyone seems to be in a huge rush to make it to the big finale which I must say is very impressive and with a budget that would have paid for ten year's worth of episodes in the 60s. At least the 60s sensibility is maintained by setting the movie firmly in "Avengersland," that mythical place where no extras are ever seen, or other cars passed on the road (a result of necessarily tight budgets back in the 60s, though with many scenes in the movie set in central London it makes you wonder if we're on some world that only has two dozen or so inhabitants remaining).
It is a great looking production though, with a fantastic musical score by Joel McNeely (Shadows of the Empire) with liberal doses of Laurie Johnson's original theme tune sprinkled throughout. Patrick Macnee has a cameo appearance, literally a "blink or you'll miss it" performance! He is currently touring the United States to promote his book, The Avengers And Me, although as of last weekend he had not seen the movie (but did approve of Fiennes continuing Steed's tradition of going unarmed). Macnee is also promoting the digitally remastered versions of the original episodes starring himself and Diana Rigg. These are timely releases and will help fans ameliorate their disappointment with this flashy but ultimately forgettable movie adaption.