While not the complete calamity that Warner Bros.’ refusal to press-screen it suggested, “The Avengers” is a pretty thin cuppa Earl Grey. Costing upward of $60 million yet running less than 90 minutes including credits, pic, which was bumped from its original June opening to this late-summer dumping ground, makes a game effort at reviving the popular ’60s British spy serial and boasts plenty of surface sparkle, including a witty look and super-duper special effects. What’s missing is chemistry: the right blend of seriousness and whimsy, and charmingly compelling interplay between leads Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman, who turn in lackluster perfs. Fast-paced but uninvolving, the result seems unlikely to captivate either series fans or newcomers, making for dim B.O. prospects.
Further proof that an old TV franchise and a couple of current stars don’t equal foolproof celluloid fun, pic perhaps doomed itself in trying for fidelity to the series, which remains wholly bound to the evanescent pop culture of the ’60s. The makers might have been better off taking a page from Mike Myers, whose “Austin Powers” provides a convincing simulation of ’60s giddiness while filtering it through a scrim of knowing ’90s mockery.
“The Avengers,” in contrast, assumes incorrectly that the old formulas can simply be replayed without irony or updating. Its super-sleuths, John Steed (Fiennes) and Emma Peel (Thurman), still live in a depopulated, traditional-gone-mod London, awaiting the next opportunity to save Blighty from the latest outlandish threat posed by eccentricity run amok.
Steed, the one with the Savile Row suit, bowler hat and lethal bumbershoot, works for a secret government arm called the Ministry. His controllers, the paradoxically monikered Mother (Jim Broadbent) and Father (Fiona Shaw), bring him together with the chic, agile Mrs. Peel to combat the predation of an out-of-control project called Prospero, which threatens to wreak havoc on Britain’s weather.
Mrs. Peel herself is initially suspected of being a player in Prospero’s mischief, until it’s revealed that she has an evil double who’s working for the baddies. The chief culprit, meanwhile, is the climatologically monikered Sir August de Wynter (Sean Connery), a maniacal aristo who lives on a surreal estate (played by Blenheim Palace) and who plans to reduce Britain to an arctic wasteland unless the nation agrees to fork over 10% of its GNP.
The plot’s further unfurling, not surprisingly, involves lots of chases, high-tech gimmickry and heavy weather. A la the current generation of American sci-fi spectacles, we get to see another nation’s urban landmarks gleefully trashed: Big Ben explodes in flames and, best of all, Trafalgar Square gets blanketed by a blizzard.
Director Jeremiah Chechick handles the visual and logistical aspects of all this with a credible amount of polish and verve. He’s ably abetted by Roger Pratt’s handsome lensing. But pic’s most stellar contributor, unquestionably, is production designer Stuart Craig, who provides an imaginative look that deftly balances the ’60s and the ’90s, mod and postmod, abstract and concrete.
Don Macpherson’s script tries for the same, but its version of the Steed-Peel pas de deux is like champagne that’s lost its fizz, which turns out to be the pic’s most damning deficit. And though it was perhaps a thankless task from the outset, given how much the characters owed both to the zeitgeist and to the actors who originally played them (Patrick Macnee and, in Mrs. Peel’s most popular incarnation, the luminous Diana Rigg), it must be said that Fiennes and Thurman do little to animate the inert material they’re handed.
Fiennes is bland and wimpy where rectitude and aplomb are needed. And Thurman does little more than give millions of guys reason to sigh, “Well, she’s no Diana Rigg.”
Connery, meanwhile, is both underused and overdone. But there’s fun had in the background by supporting players including Shaw and comic Eddie Izzard, who plays a baddie. Macnee, the original Steed, provides a brief vocal cameo.