THE AVENGERS (USA-UK, 1998) no *
The new feature is taken from the eponymous, popular TV series that spanned most of the 1960s and starred as investigators the duo of John Steed and Emma Peel, respectively played by Patrick Macnee and (after the series had started) Diana Rigg. Now Ralph is John and Uma is Emma. Or rather, try to be and in so doing fail miserably. It is not merely a matter of miscasting but one of mis-scripting, mis-directing, mis-conceiving and a hit-or-miss attitude.
(Jeremiah Chechik made his directorial debut with Christmas Vacation (1989), one of the very best in the National Lampoon series. He followed this up with the warm, intimate and offbeat Benny & Joon. I have not seen (nor have many others) seen his Tall Tale: The Unbelievable Adventures of Pecos Bill (1994). His next film, Diabolique (1996), was a big fiasco, a remake of a French classic).
My familiarity with the TV series being modest, I asked a most reliable informant and true enthusiast of the old programs for her reaction. Her e-mail to me:
"TOTAL waste of time. Technique is out, technology is in. Wit is out, weapons are in. Subtlety is out, special effects are in. Charming is out, coy is in. Or, as one of my less talkative film instructors used to say when judging student films: Travesty. Cut. Flunk. Next."
In the originals, in ways that oddly parallel those of Italy's neorealist films of the 1940s, restrictions imposed by low budgets were a blessing--they obliged the makers to use imagination and to concentrate on characters and dialogue. On the contrary, the 60-plus million dollar feature production is a bloated mess. The film retains the old look of an eerily empty England but stuffs it with expensive, technical gimmickry that goes nowhere.
Steed, still impeccably dressed like a City banker, is an operative for the Government agency known as "The Ministry." He is assigned Mrs. Peel as a partner. Their task is to undo the evil project of Sir August de Wynter (Sean Connery), a billionaire super-scientist who lives in an eye-popping estate (Blenheim Palace was used), can change the weather at will, and bring on tornadoes, rain,snow and ice. Why he does this is as clear as slush, until, much later, when he appears, all dolled up in Scots regalia, before an august audience to blackmail the nation. "I want 10% of your GNP, otherwise I'll freeze out the United Kingdom."
Why the fabulously wealthy Sir August wants all those riches is unexplained, except for the movie being peppered (but un-salted and un-spiced) by James Bondian characteristics. But at least in the Bond flicks the villains had specific purposes, whereas here there is not even the facile alibi of a Mad Scientist.
I will spare you (and myself) details, all of which are dumb, all of which contribute to the total incoherence of the non-plot. There is a great deal of action that signifies nothing and keeps adding to the confusion and disorientation. Again, far too much of it comes from comic-book treatments of James Bond episodes, but so lacking in continuity or sense that they make Agent 007's adventures look positively Cartesian in their logic.
The story's holes are mega-crater-sized. Sean Connery's attempts at being suave fall flat. Unlike the TV series, the flirtatious, bantering, repartee and zingers between Steed and Peel have now degenerated into pedestrian sentences, leaden phrases, and un-sexy glances. The excessive banter - like all else - is so keen on being cute that boredom sets in from almost the start of the movie.
In the old series, less was more. In this jumble, more is more. The makers seem inebriated with visuals that are either deja vu, totally unconvincing, mostly gratuitous or all of the above. Only a tiny amount of good special effects ( like a swarm of insect-like helicopters pursuing the heroes' car) hold your attention.
On the infinitesimally meager side of little plusses, Uma Thurman's British accent is fine for American ears, though no doubt some Brits will cavil. She does what she can given the catastrophic context, even though she lacks she brainy sexiness of Diana Rigg. Ralph Fiennes' real talent, here buried under the debris, results in an indifferent presence.