The Avengers

on August 14, 1998 by Kim Williamson
   With its moral apparently being not to eat the macaroons so favored by Mother (Jim Broadbent), the as-captured-here oddly inept head of a peculiarly downscale British ultra-top-secret agency The Ministry, "The Avengers" is part "Batman," part Bond, part "The Prisoner"--and even part "The Avengers," the zingy Thorn EMI TV series of the '60s. That 10-season show, several of whose incarnations were imported by ABC from 1966 to 1969, was most memorably graced by one of those lightning-in-a-bottle actor pairings, Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg. As the older, dapper John Steed, he of the Saville Row bowler hat and trusty bumbershoot, and Emma Peel, she of the Mod catsuit, independent air and jujitsu abilities, former Royal Navy man Macnee and Shakespearean actress Rigg played their characters too-lean-to-sweat but way-keen-on-tussling with a succession of eccentric malefactors. Of course, the duo always made time for two-seatering through the English countryside and for repartee that both exposed and held in check their perfectly equipoised passion for each other.
   This 1998 updating sports Suffolk native Ralph Fiennes ("The English Patient"), who sounds right but looks improperly uncomfortable in his spruce suit, and Uma Thurman ("Batman & Robin"), who though she never seems like the product of New England she is never comes across as an offspring of Old England, either. And his Steed is stiff, not aristocratic; her Peel is all shape and sultry, not cinnamon-tart sparkly. In the movie's critical flaw, the filmmakers welsh even more on their ne'er-do-well, not due to any limitations of Scotsman Sean Connery but due to his character's sheer improbability. The storyline: On an island in the middle of London, an evil meteorologist named Sir August De Wynter (wink, wink) has constructed, apparently by himself and a single dragoon, and without discovery, a titanic structure that allows him to control the weather; unless world leaders give him 10 percent of their nations' gross national products, he will rake the earth with the heats of August and the snows of winter until the countries collapse. At times, De Wynter's strongholds seem impenetrable; at others, an old lady collecting donations can come right up to the front door.
   Although the script by Britisher Don MacPherson ("Absolute Beginners") contains flashes of the urbane back-and-forthing required of a proper Steed and Peel, they are few, far between and of no great portent; the dialogue remains mostly a surface structure. There's little of the fun complexity of many Macnee-Rigg scenes, as in the episode when Steed, puzzled in some parlor room, asks, "What's that under this bear-skin rug?" and lifts a corner with the point of his umbrella; "bare skin," replies Rigg's Mrs. Peel, seeing revealed the naked body of a young woman. Multiple emotions are pacing there: Peel, she of the long-missing husband, can rightly feel no desires but does, and into that mix also goes her jealousy at Steed's male response to this other beauty; for his part, Steed is a battleground between oh-so-sophisticated control and illicit ardor for the married Peel--and yet he also notices what a babe this other gal is. (Or was; she's dead.) Fiennes and Thurman seem to play with a similar goal in mind, but the fervency of their aim and the script's lack of emotional motility produce a sort of character lockjaw. The zing isn't gone, but it's dampened--and all that sweating the new duo does doesn't help.
   Aside from none-too-crisp looping and a cast list whose brevity makes this merry old England look positively depopulated, "The Avengers" is smartly produced studio fare, not surprising coming from the hands of seasoned producer Jerry Weintraub, who a decade ago already had a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame and a NATO producer of the year plaque hanging on his wall. But perhaps too smartly: Although Peel's Jag is quite right, for example, the overload of special effects at the film's finale goes against the grain of the urbane 'n' humane tradition of "The Avengers"--and it all seems little understood by director Jeremiah Chechik, who seems more made for the kooky and quirky on display in his best work, "Benny & Joon."
   Held from an early-summer release, the final "The Avengers" likely is a recut, in that a second rating was required by the MPAA (a PG for action violence and some innuendo announced in May was replaced in August by the current PG-13 for brief strong language). It's certainly passable Hollywood fare, with the studio's decision not to screen the film for press more likely layable at the feet of formerly confident management whose cinematic assurance has been shaken by a long spell of no big hits and some high-profile misses. But, still, "The Avengers" is something of a pale copy of the past; a scene in which Macnee appears here as an invisible agent made barely discernible by a play of light upon him makes for a symbolic judgment on the enterprise. Starring Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman and Sean Connery. Directed by Jeremiah Chechik. Written by Don MacPherson. Produced by Jerry Weintraub. A Warner Bros. release. Action/comedy. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language. Running time: 115 min
Tags: Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman and Sean Connery. Directed by Jeremiah Chechik. Written by Don MacPherson. Produced by Jerry Weintraub. A Warner Bros. release. Action/comedy, plaque, violence, passable, studio, cinematic, emotions, sophisticated, battleground

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