MOVIE REVIEW: "The Avengers" (1998)

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I was born in 1967, a few months before the beginning of the so-called "Summer of Love", almost a year after the "Summer of Not Supporting The Vietnam War Anymore" and just over a year prior to the famous "Summer of Venereal Diseases and Unwanted Pregnancies." Like many of my peers, I was raised more by television than by my parents. This wasn't their fault. They tried, but, hey, how could they compete with the myriad lures of Flipper, Gentle Ben, and Wait 'Til Your Father Gets Home? I grew up watching mostly syndicated TV on independent local stations, mainly because the Network Stations all ran horrible talk shows (Donahue, Dinah & Friends, The Merv Griffin Show, etc.) and soap operas all day. Thus, like any good American boy of my generation, I spent a hell of a lot of time watching repeats of English 60s TV.

Actually, I spent a hell of a lot of time watching 60s TV period. Up to the 70s, the US TV Syndication Markets had been fairly small-time and dry. By 1970, there was enough backlogged TV dating all the way back to the 50s that any local station could conceivably fill up twelve hours of broadcast time without having to do any original programming of their own. So pick any 60s TV show, The Adams Family, Get Smart, Gilligan's Island, Lost in Space, you name it, and it was repeated ad nauseam in my childhood from about age 4 to about age 13. I spent most of my youth living in the middle of nowhere without a lot of human interaction other than my immediate family. Even school, other than occasional beatings, was largely a void for me. When my friends stopped wailing on me, and talked, we'd generally chat about TV in one form or another, until I said something to anger them ("Ultraman is cooler than Superman", "Commander Koenig would kick Captain Kirk's butt in a fight", or simply "Why aren't there more shows like 'The Muppet Show'?") Thus, my culture, my society, my social milieu as it were consists not so much of any real society of which I was a part in my formative years, but rather consists of my memories of the entirely fictional societies I saw on TV. From the number of movies based on TV shows thus far this century, I suspect I'm not alone in this affliction.

Which brings us to The Avengers (1960-1968 BBC TV). In it's initial incarnation, it was a show called 'Police Surgeon' about a doctor who solved crimes. In it's 2nd season, the producers decided change the direction of the show, and the entire season was about the protagonist doctor tracking down the people who killed his wife. The show was re-titled 'The Avengers' and the character of John Steed (Patrick MacNee) was introduced as a mere supporting character: a mysterious friend of the family who hung around and helped the protagonist 'Avenge' his wife's death.

At the close of the second season, the wife's death avenged, the star of the series decided to move on to other work, and when the show came back for it' s third year, it revolved entirely around Mr. Steed, now rather inexplicably a british spy, and his new sidekick, Emma Peel. The first Emma didn't quite work out so they re-cast her mid-season with the then-unknown skin-tight leather-jumpsuited butt-kicking Diana Rigg, and suddenly the show became a huge hit.*

I can certainly see why - the role-reversal is a lot of fun. They played on the format of the basic two-spy show, where one spy was the smart one and one was the tough one (James West [Tough] and Artimus Gordon [Smart], for instance, or Napoleon Solo [tough] and Illya Nickovich Kuriarkin [Smart]). Steed was foppish and smart, but not particularly handsome, and Peel was the drop-dead gorgeous brawn. Watching her in her little leather sausage-skin outfits jumping around and sword fighting and kicking and climbing every week, I remember thinking 'Wow, she's just yummy.' (I was ten. That was as erotic as I was capable of expressing my thoughts at the time.) But there was more than that: Steed and Peel had an undeniable chemistry. They were both classy people who liked each other, were funny, and enjoyed jousting, both verbally and physically. The show was silly at best, the plots were ludicrous (The one where they visit the Ministry of Faces Painted on Eggs, headed by a pre-python John Cleese springs to mind), but it was entertaining, vaguely psychedelic fun. You never felt like an idiot watching the show, even at it's worst. It was clear the people making the show were having fun, and that joy in their work was infectious.

The show was hugely successful from it's mid-3rd season on, and the BBC went full-tilt making as many episodes as possible for four years. Of course, being English TV, that means there's really only 51 episodes of the 'Main Sequence' of the show. I've never understood that. Python ran four years, there's only 48 episodes, 42 of which were made in the first three seasons (!) The Young Ones was a huge hit, and yet in two seasons they could barely make twelve episodes. Contrast the main sequence of The Avengers (63-67) with an American show running more or less concurrently with it, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (64-68). Voyage managed to squeeze out 110 episodes in the same period it took Avengers - or seemingly any other English show - to make a mere 51. But I digress.

At the end of the 67 season, Diana Rigg decided to leave, so episode # 51 concerns her long-lost, presumed-dead husband showing up again, and Emma going off to re-join him. The show should have ended there, but it was a hit, so they thought they'd pull an "X-Files" and milk it for another couple of seasons. Steed's new sidekick lacked all the charms of Ms. Rigg, and the show was canceled within a season. It was briefly resurrected as "The New Avengers" in 1977, but this was never very popular, and, again, was canceled in less than a season.

Patrick MacNee continues working, but, really, hasn't had a good job since he played Count Iblis on Battlestar Galactica in 1977. His obligatory cameo in this film is a mere voiceover. Diana Rigg went on to become the best Bond Girl of all time, who actually marries 007 in 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service', and is now a PBS pledge drive spokesperson. She maintained a bit of class by not appearing in this movie at all.

As you can see, I'm somewhat obsessive about 60s TV, so it was with a degree of skepticism that I approached the big-budget widescreen version of The Avengers. Had it not been for the presence of Sean Connery, I probably wouldn't have given it a tumble. Generally, Sean Connery is pretty good in movies. Occasionally he's brilliant ("A Fine Madness", "Robin & Marian"), and even when he's bad, he's at least interesting ("Zardoz"). On the few occasions when he just inexplicably stinks, well, at least he usually sports a good toupee ("Medicine Man"). The Toupee thing gives me hope for my own future. Thus, Connery as the bad guy, Sir August DeWinter, struck me as inspired casting.

Alas, however, I've never seen a performance from Connery as lackluster as this one here. He mumbles, mugs, and is only slightly more menacing than my late grandfather (Principally because Connery is taller than Granddad). He stumbles through the entire movie looking vaguely embarrassed and somewhat unsure about where the camera is. His dialog is the worst sort of twaddle. He goes through the whole movie oddly disaffected, as though he's stoned or dying or drunk or stroking out or something. It's disturbing to watch such a bad performance, and in the end it gets worse, because we're forced to watch one of the least-memorable fight scenes in history between Ralph Finnes and Sean. I mean who are we trying to kid? Sure Connery is like 70-zillion or so, but Ralph Finnes is a stick. I'm a wus with a bad back and I could take Ralph Finnes in a fight. Hell, my (considerably shorter-than-Sean-Connery and quite-a-bit-more-dead) grandfather could take Ralph Finnes in a fight. Yet Ralph wins. This is like seeing James Bond done in by knickknack from 'The Man with The Golden Gun' or, hell, like if Short Round from 'Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom' managed, somehow, to escape from his movie, enter another film, and somehow killed Bond. It's not only implausible, it's vaguely insulting.

Ok, fine, so the obligatory arch super-villain is a dud. How are Steed and Peel?

Quite unimpressive, to tell the truth. Finnes is a fine actor, I've seen him in a lot of good things, but he's just not a forceful enough presence to play the male lead in a movie like this. True to form, Steed is a popinjay, obsessed with clothing and the right wine, slavishly dedicated to his outdated bowler hat and his antique car, but able to do some harm by whacking people with his ever-present umbrella if need be. This works for Patrick MacNee, who had a great voice, and was sort of squat and going-to-fat, and clearly used his dapper obsessions to make up for his physical shortcomings. Ralph, who has no voice, and is too thin, just comes across as yet even still more foppish when given this attribute. All this serves to leave the leading man portion of the film curiously vacant. Ralph is clearly incapable of holding that post in this movie, and Connery just seems too lazy to bother with it. Furthermore, Ralph spells his name 'Raef', but pronounces it "Ralph" - what the heck is up with that? Put an 'L' in your name already, you limey wimp!

This is actually part of the problem of the film - incidentally - it's theoretically English, but the one time they mention money in the script, they do so in Dollars. 'Raef' Finnes' name is listed in the opening credits as 'Ralph' even though he's well known for spelling it otherwise. I'm rather surprised that they didn't re-christen Sir Connery as 'Shawn'. The movie is never clear if it's playing to an American or English audience, and that insecurity hampers it at every turn.

Which brings us to Uma Thurman as Emma Peel. I first became aware of Uma when she was featured as the centerfold of the 1989 Rolling Stone 'Hot' Issue. I'd had a love/hate relationship with RS for some time, and that issue finally made me swear it off forever, since, "Its stopped being a music magazine, and it's become just another fashion mag." The first time I ever actually saw her in a film, so far as I can remember, was in Terry Gilliams' 'Adventures of Baron Munchausen' wherein she played the goddess Venus. She emerged from the surf (After a fashion) all beautiful and wet and (very briefly) naked, and said 'Hi'. When the cherubs and giant clams started fluttering all about, I thought, 'wow, this should be neat' and then Uma got out. I didn't really know who she was, but was completely underwhelmed. That was what all the fuss was about?

You think of Venus Emerging from the Surf, and you think of, say, Paulina Poriskova or a young Sela Ward, or Elle MacPherson, someone just fall-down gorgeous from that period. I realize that Uma Thurman is *supposed* to be fall-down gorgeous, the operative word in this sentence being 'supposed'.

Somehow, being tall, leggy, and chesty just doesn't work for her. She's the kind of actress that everyone fawns and raves over to the point that I kind of subliminally accept that, yes, she's gorgeous and talented. Then I actually see her in a movie, and I'm so completely unimpressed that I begin to wonder if, possibly, just possibly, I might be gay, she does so little for me. Then I remember that I thought - still do - that Dianna Rigg was just 'Yummy', and I still have dreams about 99 from 'Get Smart' and how Carolyn 'Morticia' Jones still gets me worked up into a sweat, and of course I still think Paulina Poriskova, a young Sela Ward, and Elle MacPherson are all really neato-looking, and I realize that, no, I'm not gay, I just don't like Uma as Emma.

Why should this be? Perhaps her completely unimpressive - in fact, slightly annoying - voice. Perhaps because everyone fawns over her for such little reason. Perhaps it's because to me she always looks less like a gorgeous starlet and more like a depressed divorced schoolmarm who's so scared to wind up alone and childless that she ends up dating janitors and bus drivers. Perhaps because she has yet to give a single performance that makes an impression on me. Perhaps it' s simply because she's blonde and I'm more attracted to brunettes. Who knows.

They play up the romance angle between Peel and Steed. They kiss once, and the movie ends with them getting married for Pete's sake! What the hell is the deal with that? Clearly, in the series, Peel and Steed were attracted to each other, but just-as-clearly they never acted on it, and that tension was part of the fun of the show. The show never recovered from Emma leaving to go back to her husband, and I suppose some of the allure for the movie was the idea of actually taking that sexual tension and running with it in some particular direction. Alas, Fines and Thurman have no chemistry whatsoever. Any two random objects you can think of have more chemistry than these two.

Try and think of a couple, it's fun! Bathroom Grout and a small piece of dirty string have more chemistry. Orange Paint and a Screamin' Jay Hawkins CD have more chemistry. Lint and Betamax Videocassetes have more chemistry. Remember, Ralph is about as compelling as Formica in this movie, and Uma always seems like she should be a manager at a Lubys Cafeteria somewhere rather than acting, so I'm really not overstating their lack of chemistry here.

The plot is wispy-thin, and is given away in the previews for the movie. Sean Connery controls the weather due to some double-talk involving repeated use of the word 'Antimatter' and he wants to blackmail the world into buying their weather from him. (Which is actually a bargain, if you think about it: Saharan countries could pay for rain, northern countries could pay for less snow, the surplus of which would be shipped to Saharan countries as rain, England could buy some Mediterranean climate, Nebraskans would gladly pay through the nose to keep it from being so hot here in teh summer. This is, frankly, a boon to mankind that Conner/DeWinter has here, but it's treated as a Bad Thing.) There's also some dull stuff about Evil Twin Clones and Traitors Within The Ministry, but none of that matters much, and is resolved quite easily. Oh yes, and there's an evil henchman who shows up now and again, looking like a rather unfortunate cross between Gary Glitter and Simon LeBonn, but not in a good way, so the less said about him the better.

Ordinarily I wouldn't criticize the plot in a movie like this - the show was about the interaction between the two leads, and giving them excuses to do exciting things that made them look good. It was silly, but acceptable. This movie really only has ciphers of the lead characters, and no good villains, so, reluctantly I need to come to the plot, which, as I said, is given away in the previews. Enough about that.

Production design is confused. Producers can't decide if the movie takes place in the current day, or in some kind of eternal 1960s never-never land. Thus, production design and art direction jump back and forth rather randomly, which is simply distracting. One would assume in a movie like this, at least someone seeking eye candy could loose themselves in some over-the-top set design, along the lines of some of the Roger Moore Bond films or the 60s segments of the Austin Powers movies, or even the weird sets for Disney's live-action remake of 101 Dalmatians. Anybody seeking that will be disappointed. The movies' looks are as bland as it's acting and it's (Alleged) action sequences.

Well, at least the music should be nice, right? 60s spy move/show, what could be better?

Nope. And this brings me to another of my various hobby horses: Modern Movie Music. Take any of the following shows, selected by me at random: The Addams Family, Get Smart, Gilligan's Island, the Man From Uncle, Green Acres, I Dream of Jeanie, I Spy, Lost in Space, the Munsters, the Prisoner, Secret Agent, Star Trek, the Wild Wild West. All of these shows have memorable music that you could probably hum right now. Even the strangely bad bongos-and-operatic vocals Star Trek theme had a memorable progression. Who can forget the driving surf rock guitar of The Munsters? The Foxtrot 'Linus and Lucy' theme from Peanuts? Don Adams walking down the hall to the music from Get Smart? The Monkees Theme? Johnny Rivers singing "Secret Agent?" Even when it's bad, it's good, it's memorable, it's punchy, it stays with you, and it serves to immediately identify the show. I sat through many and awful 5th season episode of The Wild Wild West just to hear the cool music. The Avengers is no different.

Thus, I thought, no matter how bad the movie is, at least I'll be able to hear a couple neat orchestral versions of the Avengers Theme. Again, I was wrong. The Theme is used only twice in the movie, both times for less than a minute. The rest of the time, it's bland new-agey fare, suitable for an episode of Star Trek: Voyager or Babylon 5. (B5 was an amazing show, but as many wonderful things as it had going for it, music was generally not one of them, as my reviews in Retrospeculative TV are making me painfully aware.) This is part and parcel of a larger trend of avoiding using well-known musical cues and themes, for no logical reason I can come up with.

The first example I can think of was 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which dispensed with the affore-mentioned Opera/Bongos theme in lieu of Jerry Goldsmith's big orchestral fanfare. This was unusual, and I remember being a kid and seeing the movie in theaters, and people being vocally upset that there was no recognizable music in the move. Oh well. It' s a bad movie, that's just one of it's many flaws. At least when they decided to ditch the TV theme, they replaced it with something equally as catchy and memorable. (Goldsmith's theme later became the theme for Star Trek: The Next Generation.)

1988s 'Batman' movie intentionally distanced itself from the excruciatingly bad tv series of the 60s, so it made sense that they'd get Danny Elfman to write some completely new music, completely unrelated to the TV show. That was fine. Unfortnuately, since then anyone making a movie based wholly or partially on a 60s TV series has felt compelled to avoid using that series' familiar music. Why? Possibly simple imitation: Batman succeded (Despite not being a very good movie) by ignoring the TV music and darkening the story, therefore any other movie based on a TV show must likewise (A) ignore the music and (B) darken the story in order to be successful. In the case of Batman (Which I didn't like), this worked somewhat, since Batman had existed prior to the Adam West TV series, and the movie's purpose was to 'rescue' the character from that campy image. Again, that's fine. But tell me, if you will, what is the point of darkening Lost In Space? Why make it edgy and bleak? It's based on a frackin' children's show for gosh sakes! What's next? A postmodern re-telling of Lassie where Timmy shoots smack and June Lockhart is a madam? If this kind of thing doesn't stop soon, where will it all lead to in the end? A "Josie and the Pussycats" movie for God's sake?

What? They actually made one? Grrrrrrr......

Ignoring for a moment why anyone would think, even for a moment, that re-making these series in the first place, you have several advantages when you're working with an established property like the Bond franchise, or the Trek franchise, or what have you: You have defined characters (No invention necessary), most people are already vaguely aware with the way things work from the TV show (Cuts down on exposition), you have a style that is usually rather distinctive, and, most importantly for my current diatribe, you have recognizable music!

Just the same, for some reason, studio execs and such decided in general to completely re-invent the shows they're translating to the big screen, including, of course, new music. Thus you have Adams Family movies with no 'da-da-da-dump (Snap-snap)' and "The Saint" without any trace of "Da-de-da-da, da-da-da-da." The worst examples of this trend would be 1991' s 'Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country" which only has the trek theme (or any trek theme at all, really) one time and only for a few seconds, as the enterprise sails off into the sunset. And then there's 'Goldeneye', the first Pierce Brosnan Bond film, which was completed without using the bond theme at all! Test screenings after the film was finished showed that people were so put off by this that they simply pulled one version of the theme off the soundtrack of 'License to Kill' and dubbed it into 'Goldeneye' over the tank chase scene. Honestly, why would anyone think that would work? Sean Connery himself proved you can't do a Bond Film properly without the music when he did "Never Say Never Again" in 1982.

This trend might not be so offensive if, as I've said before, they replaced the missing themes with something new and equally memorable, but they never do. Goldeneye is widely known among Bondophiles as the movie with the worst soundtrack - worse even than the disco theme in 'The Spy Who Loved Me.' The Avengers is in the same boat: The music in the show was really cool, but it was replaced by utterly vapid new-agey noodlings which serve no purpose other than to fill space. They don't add to the action or romance, they don’t detract from it, they just don't do anything. They're just running water in the background.

The DVD offers little in the way of extras - a text-only history of the characters and actors and actresses, a preview for 'The Avengers Collection' , and some previews for other movies by the same label. There's also a theatrical trailer for the film (only one), which , I noticed, featured a lot of footage that didn't make it into the movie. Presumably there are several scenes 'on the cutting room floor' but these are not on the DVD. In fact, there's very little on the DVD except for the movie itself, and that's really not worth having.

In 1987, The Pretenders released a song called "Don't Get Me Wrong". The Video featured Chrissy Hynde dressed up like Emma Peel, and cleverly edited into footage from several old episodes of The Avengers.

It was cute, funny, and clever, just like this movie should have been, but wasn't, and best of all it only took three minutes of my life, and I enjoyed the music, unlike the two hours of time wasted watching (And trying not to listen to) this movie. Also: Chrissy's got some legs on her. She doen't show 'em off much, but she used to be a model, you know.

People unframiliar with the Avengers will simply be bored by this movie. People who liked the original show will be very frustrated with it. The music video is more rewarding.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS MOVIE?

No, but not because there's anything inherently leftist in it, it's only because nobody likes this movie.

*-I have been informed by Gridman that: "Dr. Keel was replaced by Cathy Gale, not Emma Peel. Cathy Gale was played by Honor Blackman until she quit to appear in Goldfinger. Also appearing in place of Cathy Gale from time to time was Venus Smith, played by Julie Stevens."
I apologize for the misinformation put forward in this article. I'm an idiot.

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