WFTB Score: 3/20
The plot: Sophisticated British agent John Steed is captivated by Mrs Emma Peel, an expert in the Prospero weather shield programme keeping Queen and country safe and dry. The trouble is, someone looking exactly like her has broken into the programme, causing chaos. As the pair investigate, they have cause to drop in on the enormous estate of ruthless scientist and entrepreneur August de Wynter.
A long time ago, when James Bond was a young Sean Connery and TV was still black and white, a TV show called The Avengers was born. It starred Patrick Macnee as super-suave English (a)gent John Steed, never without his bowler hat and brolly. For several years the spy-cum-crimefighter was ably assisted by Diana Rigg’s teasing Emma Peel, often clad in leather catsuit and kinky boots as they fought weird and wonderful enemies. Come the late nineties, Bond was back in vogue and an old Sean Connery was available for the right price, so a new Avengers was born – and the rest is bad film history.
Ralph Fiennes is John Steed, the quintessence of the English gentleman and effortless dispatcher of bad guys. Into Steed’s life marches forthright Mrs Emma Peel (Uma Thurman), a shapely expert at the Prospero Programme; but at the Ministry where Mother (Jim Broadbent) keeps fraught control of proceedings, with the stern assistance of Father (Fiona Shaw), both are shown video of Mrs Peel (apparently) leaving behind a trail of death and destruction. Instructed to keep close to Emma, she and Steed investigate the weather control business of August de Wynter (Connery) and his side-project called BROLLY, a shadowy organisation which ensures anonymity by dressing up as huge teddy bears. However, as both Steed and Peel find out, there’s nothing fluffy about de Wynter or his silent henchman Bailey (Eddie Izzard).
You can see why a film version of The Avengers might have seemed like a good idea. Just like in the 60s, there was a buzz about ‘Cool Britannia’ and, after a long time in the doldrums, British films like Four Weddings and a Funeral and Trainspotting were making waves. Which only goes to prove that (creatively speaking) there are no bad ideas as such, only poor execution. And boy, is The Avengers poorly executed. Chief problem is the plot, which jumps about from confusing scene to confusing scene as though the editor simply forgot to put in the linking scenes that made sense of it all. Confusion resolved can be very satisfying, but confusion left to fester gets boring very quickly. The multi-coloured teddy bears, the gun-toting granny (which, to employ a phrase, Goldfinger wants back), the invisible gadget man Colonel Jones (voiced by Macnee) and the equally CGI-powered robot wasps should be funny, or exciting, or both; but here they exist without context and result only in bafflement (the genteel English setting is an empty pose waiting for a plot). There’s not even an explanation of why Mrs Peel has an exact double, apart from winking references to being a Gemini. And why would you cast Eddie Izzard – master of comic delivery and funny voices – as a mute henchman? It truly beggars belief.
Of course, you could pass it all off as a tribute to the quirkiness of the TV show. Except that, despite its constant silliness, the film never exhibits anything approaching a sense of humour. There are only surreal situations, played out without the slightest hint of fun, and Steed and Peel’s thuddingly dull innuendo. I’m not saying that the filmmakers should have camped it up or plastered sound effects all over the soundtrack, but with the budget at their disposal they shouldn’t have made a film this soggy, this inert, this sterile. The teddies, for example, are potentially a fun idea, but are only used to service a naff one-liner about a ‘teddy bears’ picnic’. There is a decent sequence wherein Thurman gets trapped in M. C. Escher’s staircase inside de Wynter’s mansion; but this is the only bit of the film that grabbed my attention, including the run-of-the-mill finale wherein Big Ben’s tower blows up, Thurman battles Izzard, Fiennes battles Connery and the world is saved – all in time for tea, of course.
So, the plot’s a dog; that doesn’t mean the actors get off scot-free. Thurman’s performance is, unsurprisingly, centred around her ability to look slinky in a catsuit; which she undeniably does, though she’s no match for Rigg at her most pert. More importantly, she constantly seems to be asking ‘Isn’t my English accent great?’ I suppose it is, Uma, but shouldn’t you be interacting with the people and things around you? Thurman floats through the film with wooden detachment, made all the worse by the fact that she has two roles and is equally duff in both. Fiennes, meanwhile, wears the blank smile of a man at a party he can’t wait to leave, biding time until his car full of cash arrives, and swaps saucy lines without a scrap of chemistry or charisma. At least Connery puts some passion into his role, but his shot at being the villain for once comes out as pure pantomime, especially against the blandness of his colleagues. Only Jim Broadbent seems to know he’s in a comedy, and he’s lumbered with playing against Fiona Shaw, who appears to think she’s doing Chekhov – or perhaps she’s anticipating The Matrix.
There are instances of successful TV-to-film transitions, such as (apparently, I’ve not seen it yet) the recent update of Get Smart. The Avengers, though, is more akin to The Beverly Hillbillies. Give Steed and Peel a miss and head directly for Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. For all his faults, there’s a man who knows how to make fun of the 60s. The Avengers may have the phone boxes, the classic cars, the brolly and the bowler, but it’s as much fun as a wet weekend in Skegness.