THE BIGGER PICTURE PRESENTS: THE AVENGERS (1998)
Well folks, we’re taking a break this week from old B-movies, but don’t worry, there is a reason for this interruption. In all honesty, I thought it would get a bit repetitive to be talking about similar issues every week, and I fancied taking a stab at Hollywood for a change. So here we are, discussing one of their many botched attempts at bringing a once popular television series to the big screen. And, it just so happens that this series is one of my favourites of all time; I am of course talking about the 1960s spy-fi show: The Avengers. Despite being over fifty years old, it somehow remains a piece of timeless television, trapped in its own peculiar world of bizarre eccentricity (and no, it has nothing to do with Marvel). How does Hollywood completely mess up an adaptation of a classic series? Let’s take a look.
The movie wastes no time in introducing us to our two leads: John Steed, played by Ralph Fiennes, and Emma Peel, portrayed by Uma Thurman. In fairness, neither of these two are miscast really, despite whatever ‘proper’ film critics might say. Fiennes is charming and likeable, even if his bowler hat is too big for him, and Thurman is sprightly in her role, despite having an English accent that makes her seem like an odd caricature. Alas, I’m sad to say, Mrs Peel’s introduction in this movie is horribly misguided; you see, The Avengers TV series was known for its quirky, goofy, otherworldly charm and humour, and this film tries desperately to recreate this. For instance, when we meet her she is receiving a letter at her London home (a bizarrely furnished home, I might add) and what she opens contains a note. “Please answer the telephone,” she reads aloud in her baffling accent. The phone rings. Ooh, the filmmakers think, that’s peculiar and weird and like the show. “Huh? What?” thinks the audience, is she that much of an idiot that she doesn’t know what to do with a phone? What did she think it was for? And why is she dressed like a Christmas cracker?
Anyway, we learn that the plot of this film is lifted from a classic episode of the series, as megalomaniacal super-villain Sir August de Wynter, played by Sean Connery, has stolen a weather-changing machine and is holding the world to ransom. Sir August is full of weirdness, between having an unhealthy obsession with our heroine and a nonsensical name (we get more baffling dialogue out of this: Mr Steed reels off the villain’s siblings as “April, May, June, July” to which Mrs Peel quips, “the family really did have weather on the brain.” Those are months you lunatic! What is up with this film and trying to make her look like a bumbling twit?).
My favourite scene is when our duo investigate his company, and we learn that he is having a conference with his minions. For whatever reason, Sir August decided that the best way to hide the identities of his co-conspirators was to dress them all up as pastel coloured teddy bears. Watching the former James Bond star and one of the coolest actors in the world dressed as an enormous, cuddly bear is one of the most surreal things I have ever seen. The dialogue even contradicts what is happening, as he says to his followers: “I know all of you, and you all know me, but you cannot know one another.” To which I ask, why are you dressed as a bear then? If they all know you, but can’t know who everyone else is, what requirement was there for you to cosplay as Winnie-the-Pooh? Was it in Connery’s contract? He’d only do the film if he got to dress as a bear?
Yep, this happened.
There’s more rampant madness and silliness, including an awesome set inspired by Escher’s Relativity painting. We have a mute henchman played by Eddie Izzard, a machine-gun wielding granny, an evil clone and an army of mechanical wasps. None of it makes any sense but it’s sheer insanity and genuinely a lot of fun. Oh, there’s also a blind double agent played by Fiona Shaw, who has a habit of making unnecessarily dramatic entrances; in fact, all our villains in this film like bursting into rooms or leering around corners like they’re in a panto. Poor Ralph Fiennes spends a lot of the film being knocked out by various attackers, and again I’m not sure if this owed to poor storytelling or if the filmmakers genuinely want our heroes to look like a pair of muppets. They’re a lot more competent in the series, I promise.
But, in my humble opinion, the moment that this film fully goes off its rocker is in the final act. After a brief visit from the invisible man (bear with) our duo attack Sir August’s base. The weather-machine is destroying London, so Mr Steed does battle with our mad scientist, eventually defeating him by impaling him on his own cane. But, apparently the weather has decided to turn on its new master as he is struck by lightning and, no joke, is dragged into the sky by the lightning bolt and disintegrated. What the hell do you even say to that? Even in a film with a teddy bear board meeting, weather-control and robot-wasps this is still the strangest part. Oh, and then the film ends with a song belted out by Grace Jones and Suggs from Madness. Yes, it’s all so very bizarre.
The Avengers doesn’t really do its small screen counterpart justice. It doesn’t do much for the lead characters, the story was chopped up by the studio execs at Warner Bros, and the attempts at recreating the eccentricity of the show is more baffling than charming. But despite this, I still love it. It’s fun, it’s short, and it’s my favourite ever film.