The Avengers (1998)

D: Jeremiah Chechik
S: Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman, Sean Connery

Given the repeated emphasis on the word 'style' in the advertising for this long awaited update of the 60s British TV series it should come as little surprise to find that it has been coiffed and manicured to the max. Like the other TV offshoot of Summer 1998, Lost in Space, The Avengers is an elaborately designed and visually extravagant fantasy aimed primarily at ten to twelve year old boys. With its emphasis on the curvature of Uma Thurman's body, the dapper unflappability of Ralph Fiennes and the cartoonish high villainy of Sean Connery's character, it should prove a success with that particular demographic. But parents hoping for a spot of nostalgia, diehard fans of the original series and casual viewers who have no idea of what to expect will find themselves wondering just what in blazes is going on.

Though it began as a straight drama/suspense series on British television in 1960, The Avengers quickly became something closer to a sophisticated parody of the spy genre and finally an outright ironic fantasy before its eventual demise in 1968. By the time it had ended, the series had inspired one genuine classic of the television medium, Patrick McGoohan's The Prisoner, and had influenced several others of lesser import. Its camp but not quite cartoonish sensibility was a perfect vehicle for mid to late sixties popular culture and spread its philosophy even to American shows such as Batman. Given its ample syndication since its original broadcast and its legions of devoted followers, it was inevitable that its progeny would come back to it in time, bearing the budget and technological armoury of a different age to resurrect that certain special something that excited them long ago.

But as the old saying goes, you can't come home again, and The Avengers the movie is an inevitable distance from The Avengers the TV series. While this observation might reek of anorak purism, there is valid reason for it. At the core of Jeremiah Chechik's big budget spectacular is an excess of contrivance on every level, a desperate reaching towards something ineffable which it never seems able to reach and so compensates for by making as much of a noisy spectacle of itself as possible. This overscored visual kaleidoscope is not only structured around a series of loosely interconnected scenes deliberately designed to be playfully obscure so that you will assume it does not need a genuine plot, the dialogue positively drips with self-consciousness and is so laboured and frantic to wring nonexistent ironies out of obvious double entendres that nothing which happens makes even the remotest sense. You could call it postmodern and clever if you wanted to, but it would be like arguing that Ed Wood was a misunderstood genius (hmm, didn't Tim Burton do that...?). It sometimes faintly resembles something Jeunet and Caro might make as a training exercise or the Coen Brothers wrote for a fast buck, but it mostly just seems artificial in the extreme and eventually pathetic.

The cast don't help matters. Thurman has carried her performance (and her bad British accent) over from Batman and Robin playing Emma Peel and while Fiennes does his level best with John Steed, the character is treated rather shabbily by the script and can't recover. He is introduced with an overextended gag centred on training scene and spends the rest of the movie being thoroughly one-upped by Mrs. Peel (who, going with current politically correct trends is more proactive and intelligent than her male partner) until he finally gives in and kisses her. This is not a character fans will recognise and he is certainly far from cool. Meanwhile Sean Connery clearly enjoys himself playing a ridiculous villain who gets to blow up Big Ben (in a deliberate reference to Independence Day's assault on the White House) but he generates no real menace and despite the computer generated nastiness he unleashes upon London, you don't really much care if they get him or not. Fiennes is no Patrick MacNee and Thurman is no Diana Rigg (or Honor Blackman, for that matter), but one must give actors their space to create a character and they do try. Yet the indefinable charm and sophistication of the original cast went a long way towards covering up some of the series' more outrageous elements, and in the absence of adequate protection from itself, The Avengers ultimately collapses.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.