Even Uma's catsuit can't save it.
By Zak Weisfeld
AUGUST 24, 1998: In the last 500 years, Western scientific endeavor has greatly enlarged the scope of human understanding. Yet, despite the ongoing work of millions of men and women to explain what things are and how they work there are still a number of great mysteries hiding in the warp and weft of reality. Of these some are undiscovered, others are unknowable, and still others are just incredibly damned irritating.
Somewhere, high on the list of the incredibly damned irritating great mysteries is the question: how do Hollywood studios choose which projects to greenlight? Nothing better illustrates the baffling, perhaps incomprehensible, nature of this arcane process better than this weekend's big screen debut of a television seriesThe Avengers.
Let me be honest: I have never seen The Avengers television show. For that I apologize. Perhaps if I'd seen the original I would understand, maybe even appreciate on a deeper, even nostalgic level, what the hell was going on in this abysmal movie. Was the show wildly popular? Did it have young people throughout Britain and her former colonies racing out to buy leather jump suits and hand-crafted bowlers? I don't know. But if not popularity then what dark force drove someone to invest millions and millions of dollars to produce a movie that isn't worth the time it takes to drive to the theater?
The Avengers is more or less the story of a secret, and excruciatingly dapper, British agent, John Steed, and a sinuous, dreadfully hip scientist, Emma Peel, who have to stop an overacting madman from controlling the earth's weather. In the hands of a mildly talented writer and director, this scenario could make for a not unentertaining Bond film. In the hands of director Jeremiah Chechik and writer Don MacPherson it makes for a bewildering, senseless carnival of mod style and flaccid innuendo.
Almost from the first frame, I felt quite bad for the talented cast of The Avengers. Ralph Fiennes, as the overdressed agent, John Steed, is the first to suffer under the unkind sensibility of director Chechik.
Always on the precipice of becoming a parody of the passionate but stiff-upper-lipped British hero, Fiennes here topples headlong into the thespianic abyss. In his opening and faintly amusing scene, Fiennes has the look of a young, lacquered Albert Finney who's become hopelessly addicted to prescription painkillers. Almost suffocating in his perfectly tailored suit, Fiennes seems about to break into a horrible Irish brogue and go capering off into a twisted '60s leprechaun movie. Sadly, he sticks with The Avengers.
Thurman, too, is poorly managed as long-legged, wise-cracking fashion victim and scientist Emma Peel. With no motivation for her character, Thurman's role seems to consist entirely of exchanging quips with Steed and waiting around to slip into the trademark leather jumpsuit.
Matching Thurman's Peel in uselessness is Sean Connery. In a kilt and excellent toupee, Connery plays the ill-tempered Scottish villain August de Wynter and manages to be ridiculous without being terribly funny. Instead he lurches from scene to scene, from anger to seduction, like a drunk improv actor in the hold of a schizophrenic audience.
One could almost forgive the shallow randomness of the characters if the movie hurried along with an edge-of-the-seat kind of tension, but, in fact, the characters are The Avengers' strong suit (not counting the aforementioned leather jumpsuit). Truth be told, I've seen tighter, more coherent narratives in weekend festivals of blacklisted, avant-garde French film students.
And removing any sense of continuity from the disintegrating story of The Avengers is editing so bad that it begins to seem purposeful. All sense of time, place, and dramatic tension vanish from The Avengers until it begins to feel less like watching a movie than like flipping between the ads in a glossy fashion mag with a mod theme.
In truth, the only energy anyone seems to have devoted to The Avengers was in the art direction and costuming. But this is not a simple matter of style over substancethis is a question of style beyond substance. A philosophy where style is elevated to the point that it seems to call into doubt the very existence of substance, as though substance is something so rare, or so old-fashioned, that it's really not worth troubling oneself about.
In the end, the whole movie felt like a merciless marketing gig perpetrated by fine British clothiers and mod retrostylistas. But I have a feeling even Uma Thurman can't sell enough go-go boots and skin-tight leather suits to make The Avengers worthwhile to anyone.
I can only wonder what television shows from my youth will one day be recycled by a Hollywood entertainment industry almost pathologically bereft of new ideas and decent stories. Extrapolating from the current state of affairs, it can't be long before we'll all be treated to a Six Million Dollar Man remake. And from there it's just a hop, skip and a jump before the hinge-jawed aliens of V continue their conquest of Earth on the big screen. What about Miami Vice? The A-Team? I hear a big-screen version of Rip Tide is slated for release in the summer of 2002.
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