The Avengers (1998)

Witless
★★
☆☆☆☆
Released: 
1998
Director: 
Jeremiah Chechik
Starring: 
Uma Thurman, Ralph Fiennes, Sean Connery
The Setup: 
Failed adaptation of the 60s British spy show.
Discussion: 

So with that other Avengers out there, it made me curious to re-watch this one, which I had run to theaters to see when it was out. This has a reputation as a terrible movie, but is a good example of a movie that is bad just by being lame, not so bad that it's fun, or weird, or wild, or much of anything. And while I was going to whale on it for being bad, I read a bit of trivia on it which said that the studio gave the project to director Jeremiah Chechik on the strength of his remake of Diabolique [????] [??] [?], and he delivered a two-hour cut. Then they tested it once--with a Spanish-speaking audience in Phoenix, AZ, who of course hated it--and the studio cut it down to 90 minutes and threw it out without any further tests. This was Chechik's last feature film, and he went to directing television from then on. So the whole thing is really more sad than anything.

We open with Ralph Fiennes as John Steed walking through a small British town, fending off various attacks. This is supposed to be the exciting opening, and it's a total dud. Turns out this is just training, and he is instructed by Jim Broadbent as spymaster Mother (who has a tense relationship with other spymaster, poor Fiona Shaw as Father) to go meet Uma Thurman as Emma Peel. She was a later choice after Nicole Kidman, who would have been amazing in the role, couldn't do it. We now meet Mrs. Peel, who strides into some all-male club to meet Steed, and they get their assignment, which is that someone deactivated Britian's weather shield (don't ask), and the person seen doing it on video is Peel herself.

So if you don't know, the name Emma Peel comes from the producers of the original show knowing they needed a hot woman as part of it so it would have "M Appeal," or appeal to men. Diana Rigg originated the role and many men have very fond erotic memories of her to this day. Rigg refused a cameo in this film, smart lady. I've never seen the show, but here Peel is treated as a gorgeous, stylish brilliant scientist with a very late-90s feminist bent that seems more focus-grouped than sincere. This is first apparent as she invades the all-male club, then in a subsequent scene in which she repeatedly bests Steed in fencing. You're sitting there like: do they really want to make Steed out to be a buffoon? Because that's the dynamic they set up for the first 30 minutes. Next to her, he's quite akin to Austin Powers.

The problem is the moronic script, by Don MacPherson. The series was apparently quite low-key on action but high on clever banter and sexual tension, and... well, there's just little worse than someone who's just not that clever trying to make clever banter. The dialogue here is just witless double entendres, things that make you groan rather than bring a smile. For example, after Peel is attacked by her double, she says to Steed "Just in time to save me from myself." He replies "I thought I was seeing double." She says "That makes two of us." You see? That's what we're dealing with. I'm sure a reading of "I was quite beside myself!" lies within that 30 minutes of excised footage. Much, much of the movie is made up of Fiennes and Thurman trying to have clever repartee and sexual tension, which simply isn't there.

So they drive out to the estate of poor, poor, poor Sean Connery as Sir August De Wynter, some guy fascinated with weather. His estate is played by Chatsworth House in Britain, which you really should visit when you're there because 1) it's beautiful and fascinating, and 2) it shows up in an endless amount of movies. Not much comes of this, except that Steed gets shot by the evil Peel and then rescued by the real Peel, and there's a sudden snowstorm. It's hard for me to remember what the point of this scene was at all.

Anyway, soon Connery (still looking good pushing 70... I advise you not to Google the poor man now, keep your memories...) is having a meeting with a bunch of guys in teddy bears suits, killing two who want out of the program, etc. The whole Austin Powers thing. Steed and Peel come in, blah, blah, and eventually Peel is attacked by her double and that's where we get that groan-worthy dialogue described earlier. Then they drive out to De Wynter's house again, attacked by giant robot hornets on the way. Then they go into a hedge maze, where they get separated, and De Wynter shows up and fights Steed, then vanishes. Literally, he moves out of shot, and then is GONE. Steed acts as though nothing happened. I must assume that this is part of the cut-out 30 minutes as well.

SPOILERS > > >
Anyway, Peel is abducted, and De Wynter puts her on a bed and it's looking like she's going to get molested in her sleep when he is disturbed. When she wakes, she is a maze-like interior which makes no sense in the movie, but apparently alludes to one of the shows' episodes. In here we learn that Father is in bed with De Wynter, and there's an invisible man, for no good reason whatsoever. I assume another reference to an episode. Eventually Steed resues Peel, then she is promptly abducted by Father.

But now it's time for De Wynter to enact his evil plan, which is to demand ten percent of Britain's GNP or he'll freeze them to death. He already makes a huge snowstorm overtake London. We've arbitrarily learned that his secret lair is on an island in the middle of the Thames, and Peel and Steed walk across the river in these inflatable bubbles. Cool, but they don't last long enough. They break in, fight, fight, blah, blah, kill De Wynter and deactivate the machine. I was interested to know that lightning can and will lift a guy hundreds of feet into the air. You will also see lightning destroy Big Ben, the nominated tourist attraction that must be destroyed, and there's a big special effects shot of tornadoes, but it appears after the device has been destroyed, so they're not at all threatening by that time. Then it's just over. Look for two shots showing Big Ben in the distance, the cheapest anything thrown over the clock face to make it look "damaged."
< < < SPOILERS END

As I said, it wasn't absolutely dreadful--well, I mean, of course it IS--but its main crime is being stupefyingly lame. I suppose if you loved the series it is utterly dreadful and an insult to humanity. But if you didn't, it's just amazingly lame. It's kind of watchable, and the banter isn't UNpleasant, just vacuous, and you do get wacky things like the giant teddy bears and robot hornets. Even though they don't make any sense. Still, the movie made the decision to be absurd, which apparently follows on the heels of the series, and although it comes off more weird than anything, weird is better than normal. And you're looking at attractive people. And it's only 90 minutes.

So there you go. From what I understand, if you do love the series, watching this movie will make you plan a mass killing, ending with yourself. If you don't, you'll just be bewildered and underwhelmed. Its not worth watching just because you love bad movies. Really, unless you're Jeremiah Chechik's mother, there's really no reason for anyone to watch it at all.

Should you watch it: 

Maybe if you love Austin Powers but want something a smidge more serious?