1998, PG, 91 min. Directed by Jeremiah Chechik. Starring Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman, Sean Connery, Jim Broadbent, Fiona Shaw, Eddie Izzard, Eileen Atkins, Shaun Ryder.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Aug. 21, 1998
It's been some time since I had a chance to catch the old BBC television show upon which this updating is based. Last weekend, then, found me sprawled in my living room, caught up in waves of nostalgia for the impeccably surreal vision of British agents John Steed and Emma Peel as portrayed by Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg on the recently released VHS compilations. To a one, the old programs were as I remembered them, breathlessly chilling in a backhanded sort of way, full of dry British wit and spare Sixties pop art set design. Macnee's trusty bowler and bumbershoot and Rigg's arch good humor and sexy karate expertise hold up surprisingly well 30 years later. At least, that is, on tape. This new film version, sad to say, is a hollow shell of the original series that so charmed U.S. television audiences in the mid Sixties, lacking nearly all of the cultural resonance and utterly devoid of the sense of kicky thrills. And it's not director Chechik's fault, either. Both he and screenwriter Don MacPherson have tendered not a lovingly bastardized update as expected, but an almost note-perfect resurrection, and that, I think, is why this film version fails so desperately. It's not The Avengers that has changed, it's everything else. True to the series, Fiennes' Steed is a gentleman out of place and time, a stiff-upper-lip Brit working for the mysterious British agency known only as The Ministry, headed by Broadbent's eccentric Mother and Shaw's equally oddball Father. When the weather over the Isles goes haywire thanks to Connery's bombastic and thoroughly deranged meteorologist character, August de Wynter, Steed is paired with the leggy Thurman as Dr. Emma Peel, a weather/jujitsu/fashion expert with a penchant for clingy fabrics and leather catsuits. Together, the two are sent out to save the world, such as it is. Everything is in place here, right down to the duo's highly stylized Brit-quip dialogue and frequent spots of tea, but outside the theatre it's 1998 and Steed and Emma no longer nurture the fatal attraction they once engendered in us. This may be different in London, which is altogether as swinging these days as it was then, if not more so. Chechik offers the occasional nod to the present via some colorful casting, but it's a case of far too little too late. Still, it's a gas to see the former human pharmacopoeia and Happy Mondays frontman Shaun Ryder playing a toadying henchman to Brit cross-dressing comic Eddie Izzard's icy killer. (Ryder, by the way, gets all the best lines, which is to say none, while Izzard finishes a close second with his single utterance, a vapid “Oh, fuck.”) Fiennes and Thurman, sadly, have all the chemistry of a damp croissant, and even Chechik's noble aspirations toward the bizarre (and there are many) fall resoundingly flat. And it certainly isn't helping matters that warhorse Connery appears to have been taking lessons from the specter of Vincent Price. The Avengers is out of place in our current cinema of excess; even Mrs. Peel's laudably skintight catsuit is played far too seriously. As for me, it's back to the old tapes, which unlike this new version, still seem to fit and feel just right.