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'Avengers': Old Gem, Tinny New Setting

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 15, 1998

  Movie Critic

The Avengers Uma Thurman and Ralph Fiennes are "The Avengers." (Warner Bros.)

Jeremiah S. Chechik
Ralph Fiennes;
Uma Thurman;
Sean Connery;
Jim Broadbent;
Fiona Shaw
Running Time:
1 hour, 30 minutes
Parental guidance suggested

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The best thing in the new "Avengers" movie is the old Avenger, Patrick Macnee. You have to look quick and listen hard to catch him because he's playing an invisible man.

But the presence of his charming voice points out what else in this new "Avengers" has become invisible.

That is, charm. Macnee was such a fantastic TV figure, his eyes atwinkle, a vivid irony in his tones, his physical grace as comic as it was impressive, his chemistry with Diana Rigg's Emma Peel ablaze with oxidation, that he made that old show a total must-see. He was its engine of deftness, its liberating spirit of merriment. He was that rarity of rarities: an English gentleman who actually got it.

Did I say invisible? In this movie, the sense of charm has been obliterated. A comet must have hit it! Maybe a dinosaur stepped on it! In any event, the new "Avengers" is dismal in dispiriting, dreary ways, and Ralph Fiennes, playing Macnee's part, is a particular disaster.

He thinks he's acting! He thinks this is a character! He thinks "The Avengers" was created by John le Carre on a dark night of the soul after losing a penetration agent at the Berlin Wall! You can feel him thinking his way into the part, groping with motivation, inventing back story, working so hard, laboring so mightily that in the end, nothing is left save a dour, grim chap you wouldn't invite to a tea party, much less a $100 million movie. Ooof! When you can sense the actor trying, something is way wrong.

That old series – which first ran from 1966 to 1969 on ABC with Macnee and, for the initial two years, Rigg – was built on a tremendous conceit: an ironic union of old and new Britains, both still Great. Mrs. Peel, all legs and deadpan attitude, was the new post-Beatles England, all Carnaby and Mary Quant. She knew who Mick Jagger was, she'd gotten high with Brian Epstein, she knew John when he started the Quarrymen. Steed, on the other hand, was old Brit, in pinstripes and bowler, with a brolly and an upper lip so disciplined sweat wouldn't dare accumulate there, just as his sang-froid was so majestic that no tremor, no qualm, no hesitation, no doubt, no tic could disturb it. He was unfazeable, unflappable, imperturbable. His was simply to do and quip.

Poor Fiennes hasn't a clue. He exchanges dried double-entendres with Uma Thurman's Mrs. Peel (Uma? Emma. Emma? Uma.) as if they were olive pits. When he bolts into action, sloppy editing makes certain we know it's a heavyset stuntman doing all the nasty physical stuff. On those few scenes where the camera is too close for a double, he's seen to move with the last-kid-chosen's graceless fear of activity. A scene where he and his new Mrs. Peel exchange repartee and rapiers reminds one of just how much better it worked between Zorro and his love mate. In "The Avengers," neither blade nor wit flash.

As for Thurman, she seems a bit more relaxed than he does, but not by much, and her feeble English accent keeps veering out of control. She's used more as a model than a character and her seven-league legs get more coverage than the script. But the two of them have no sexual subtext, as did Steed and Peel. You always wondered about the originals: Did they do it? Were they both gay? Why can't she ever smile? Who zips her up in those leather cat suits? How can a man look so good in a hat as silly as a bowler? About these two you wonder: Who had the bigger trailer? Who has more points? Who'll get top billing when "Entertainment Tonight" goes behind the scenes for another of its hard-hitting investigative reports?

The film is over-elaborate in its special effects and under-elaborate in its plotting, which is haphazard to the point of laziness. It seems that Sean Connery, that blowhard's blowhard, has through some nefarious means taken command of the weather. His question might be phrased "Wither weather?" – or even "Whether weather?" – but the long and short of it is he wants lots of money or he'll send El Niño into Piccadilly. (Alert Dan Rather!)

Through a series of sloppy plot gambits, Mrs. Peel and Steed encounter him and have silly little fights. As on the original show, a spirit of exaggeration is the point. But here, blown up and inflated by several gazillion dollars, none of the big set pieces seem very much fun at all. Nothing kills charm like money, I guess. In one, mechanical dragonflies strafe the heroes as Mrs. Peel's powder-blue E-type Jag careens across the lovely English countryside. In another, Fiennes and Connery sword fight on a catwalk inside some kind of artificial monsoon. None of them has any style or rhythm.

How much easier if "The Avengers" were bad on an epic scale – kitschy, campy, corny and clumsy. But it's not. It's badness is banal, traceable to the usual sources: not enough wit, too much money, no clear tone, no confidence, nothing to say.


© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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