People talk about the weather when they have nothing of
more import to say to one another. In "The Avengers,"
inspired by the popular TV series of the 1960s, weather is the
only issue of consequence. But when John Steed (Ralph
Fiennes) and Dr. Emma Peel (Uma Thurman) chat about the
weather, they do so not sluggishly, but looking each other
right in the eye. and fill their conversation with double
entenderes and with enigmatically symbolic body language.
The two heroes, who in the TV series are needed from time
to time to save Britain from its malefactors, are preoccupied in
this case with destroying a rich man intent on bringing the
world to its feet. They are absorbed as well with enjoying
continual cups of tea--he, with a twist of lemon.
Jeremiah Chechik directs Don Macpherson's script in an a
surreal London; one whose streets are as clean as
Disneyworld's: no ads, traffic, or supernumerary characters.
The film has the look of a Magritte painting as reshaped by a
craftsman of a comic-book, its two leads clothed in styles as
different as their outlooks on life. Brought together by a
honcho nicknamed Mother (Jim Broadbent) to challenge the
agenda of the villain, Sir August de Wynter (Sean Connery),
Steed represents the ultra-traditional London of the 1960s
while metereologist Dr. Peel (Uma Thurman) depicts the city's
style in 1999. Steed is dressed in a bowler with a smartly
tailored Sayville Row pinstripe suit; Peel prefers a catsuit that
clings to her well-shaped form and resmebles nothing less
than Batman threads.
The forty-four million dollar movie, which was not open for
advance critics' screenings, stresses neither the special
effects (which are exemplary) nor scenes of action and
violence (which are stylized and deliberately bloodless).
Rather it relies on a hoped-for chemistry between Uma
Thurman and John Steed, who spend the one hundred
minutes largely trading silly snippets of intelligence and lame
sexual innuendos. We are meant to wonder whether the two
take the time to consummate their verbal imputations but their
chemistry is so wanting that we leave the theater confident
that they are all talk and no action. The sentences traded
between the dauntless duo are so short and fleeting, as
though to simulate a stand-up comedy act between straight-
man and punster, that their conversation soon becomes
annoying. "I thought I was seeing double," Steed complains
after a nasty blow to the head. "That makes two of us,"
responds the cool, cerebral Peel. The two are so icy--they're
meant to be, actually--that you can picture them thriving in the
subzero climate planned and executed by arch villain de
Wynter. De Wynter's repartee with his nemesis is of the level,
"Now, prepare to die," to which Steed responds, "Not yet."
Occasionally the audience is challenged to recall a
fractured Shakespearean quote. De Wynter, addressing an
audience of fellow-conspirators dressed in Teddy-bear
costumes to conceal their identities, announces, "Now is the
winter of their discontent." When Peel and Steed peel the
costume from the head of a dead bear, Steed mourns, "Alas
poor Teddy," to which Peel parlays, "I knew him, Steed."
Director Jeremiah Chechik tries to be all things to all
audiences: a Cubby Broccoli to the Bond fans, a Merchant
and Ivory to the sage. In the first instance, he comes close in
one scene, that of a insect-helicopters which attack Steed and
Peel's fast-moving car in the glorious English countryside. In
the latter, he comes up wanting. Overall, those who never
saw any of the 1960s TV episodes will be as nonplussed a
congregation watching the movie "The X-Files" without an
analogous background. Special agent Alice (Eileen Atkins),
made up to look like a dowdy old lady with the preferred
mind-like-a-steel-trap says, "The weather will get colder till
we'll all have to go to hell to get warmer." That's about as
sparkling a statement you're likely to get in a film that would
be OK as a 6 p.m. TV episode but simply does not come up
to the needs of a $44 million blockbuster.
Copyright © 1998 Harvey Karten