The Avengers (1998) – By Albert Walker

The Avengers was just one of many terrible big-budget film adaptations of 60’s TV shows that inundated audiences in the 90’s. And just like silver-screen updates of Lost in Space, Wild Wild West, and The Saint, it ended up being a confusing mishmash of random scenes done in by too many cooks stirring the pot and seemingly test-screened into oblivion.

For those who never saw the old show, The Avengers followed the exploits of John Steed and Emma Peel, two British secret agents working for the Ministry in a never-ending quest to stop evil men and their increasingly comic book-like schemes to take over the world. Steed and Peel were played by Patrick Macnee (with his trademark umbrella and bowler) and Diana Rigg (who could work a leather catsuit like nobody’s business). In the 60’s, every teenager in England (boy or girl) was in love with Emma Peel, and the show’s dry wit and droll banter won it legions of fans on both sides of the Atlantic.

Unfortunately, this meant a big-screen remake was all but inevitable. For the film, the roles of Emma Peel and John Steed were given to Uma Thurman and Ralph Fiennes, respectively. I knew going into this movie that the two would be no Rigg and Macnee, but it’s even worse than that; the two have no chemistry whatsoever.

Fiennes in particular looks like a man who’s never flirted before in his life, and he delivers quips like someone is forcing him to do it at gunpoint. And Uma Thurman (Uma meet Emma, Emma meet Uma) is right back in Poison Ivy mode, vamping it up with idiotic one-liners and double entendres. (Thurman’s career is a testament to the ability of some actors to bounce back from anything. After being in this, Batman & Robin, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and Paycheck, she can still win raves for playing a certain vengeful bride.)

Sean Connery also appears as the movie’s villain. Well, saying he “appears” in this movie might be too strong a word. Let’s just say he sometimes walks in front of the camera and speaks. It’s almost like he locked his talent safely away in a cabinet before shooting, with a sign saying IN CASE OF A REAL SCRIPT BREAK GLASS. One wonders why they even bothered to hire him, as cobbling together stock footage from his older films would have gotten the job done just as well.

But what really sinks The Avengers is its story. Reportedly, after a disastrous test screening, the movie was chopped down from over two hours to exactly an hour and a half. Under the notion, I suppose, that 90 minutes of suck is better than 120. And I’m sure a bone marrow extraction that lasts ten minutes is better than one that lasts ten days, but I think I’ll pass on both.

As a result of the editing, the movie is riddled with plot holes. The story, from what I could piece together, goes something like this: Steed and Peel are assigned to investigate an insane mad scientist (Connery) bent on controlling the weather who goes by the name of “August De Wynter”. Haha, get it? (And if you think that’s painful, just wait until it’s revealed he has daughters named April, May, and June.)

Sounds like a relatively simple plot, but of course the movie is anything but. The film is full of scenes that contribute nothing to the plot, and seem to have no connection to each other. These include a robotic bee attack, a scene where the evildoers all meet while dressed as teddy bears [?] and a hopelessly pointless scene where Peel hallucinates that she’s running around a mansion patterned after MC Escher drawings (obviously, a take-off on the Avengers episode “The House that Jack Built”). Okay, Mr. Director, it’s obvious you love your set pieces, but what does any of this have to do with the story?

(I should mention that right after the aforementioned robotic bee attack, Peel’s car is sitting in a field, completely unperturbed. Suddenly, it explodes. Why? Only the film’s editor knows for sure.)

Also, thanks to the brutal editing, continuity is a mess. People routinely jump around in relation to each other, and objects and clothing frequently appear and disappear. This is acutely obvious in the climactic fight between De Wynter and Steed. Steed ends up with a large bloody cut on his chest, the reason for which obviously ended up on the cutting room floor. And then there’s the big finale, where our heroes escape certain doom while the villain’s lair goes kablooey. Let’s just say there’s a clip in the movie’s trailer that explains their escape a lot better than anything actually left in the film.

Basically, it’s just a big mess all around. We never really understand Steed and Peel’s assignment, or for that matter, De Wynter’s evil plan, or how he expects to benefit from controlling the weather. Also, for no clear reason, De Wynter just happens to be an expert in cloning, too. This allows the completely pointless appearance of an Emma Peel clone. My best guess is she was included purely to give Uma the chance to spout groaners like, “That makes two of us!” (Which still isn’t half as bad as Uma emerging from a hedge maze and pronouncing, “A-maze-ing!”)

About the only good thing to be found in this movie are the special effects. I liked a sequence where Steed and Peel walk on water through the use of clear plastic hamster balls. Also, there were some well-done scenes of tornados devastating London. Either the CG weather effects were way ahead of their time, or the technology may not have advanced much since then, because those scenes looked nearly identical to The Day After Tomorrow.

Also, even though the film is terrible, I have to take an issue with one of the major criticisms leveled against it. Many critics said the movie was too silly and absurd, at the same time accusing it of being nothing like the TV show. Sorry, but if I have to give the writers credit for something, it’s that they obviously did their homework. From time traveling, to body-swapping, to UFOs, to ghosts, Mulder and Scully didn’t have anything on Steed and Peel. The Avengers was just as absurd and campy as the old Batman TV show, with the only difference being that the humor was dry.

Of course, there’s a huge difference between funny absurdity, and painfully bewildering absurdity. Guess which one the remakers of The Avengers went for.