Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Avengers (1998): A Review


In Steed, A Film Without A Peel...

The Avengers, the film adaption of the British television series, earned a reputation, I think either fifteen minutes INTO the premiere or AFTER the closing credits, of being an absolute disaster.  For myself, I think it came right after the now-infamous Teddy Bear Conference (but more on that later).  The Avengers isn't just a misfire, or even a fiasco.  It's one of those films that you hear about, that you are told just how awful everything about it is, only to see the actual product is far worse on a technical level. 

Either that, or The Avengers was meant to be a spoof, a parody, a mocking of both the television series and spy films in general; in short, The Avengers was MEANT to be a comedy.  If that's the case, then it did its job beautifully, because it is one of the funniest, laugh-out-loud films made.  However, given that it was made with a perfectly straight face, I think all the laughs that come from The Avengers were totally unintended.  That being the case, The Avengers is a disaster, perhaps The Mother of All Disasters. 

John Steed (Ralph Fiennes) works for The Ministry, a British intelligence agency of some kind.  He is given a new assignment/partner: one Emma Peel (Uma Thurman).  The Ministry, in particular its head, "Mother" (Jim Broadbent) suspects Mrs. Peel may be involved in nefarious plots, and may be in league with Sir August De Wynter (Sir Sean Connery) relation to Maxim De Winter from Rebecca, but I digress. 

Soon Steed and Mrs. Peel find that Sir August is plotting to take over the world (don't they always do) by controlling the weather.  He has also created a Mrs. Peel doppelganger and worse, is in cahoots with The Ministry's second-in-command, "Father" (Fiona Shaw).  Now, Steed and Mrs. Peel, who appear to be attracted to each other, must stop Sir August from destroying the world with his weather-manipulating machine: Steed with his trusty umbrella and bowler hat, Mrs. Peel in her slinky, body-hugging outfits.

I think that's about the gist of The Avengers, but the film really has so much more...more nonsense than even its brisk 90 minutes can pack.    Cataloguing everywhere The Avengers went wrong is an exhausting prospect because so much goes wrong, but let's hit on a few points. 

Director Jeremiah Chechik, one suspects, may either never have actually seen the television Avengers or decided to parody what he thought were the program's selling points, namely a very wry take on strange goings-on.  This is evident throughout The Avengers, because all the acting is very stylized to the point of being farcical, even robotic.  It's one thing to play a role that indicates you are in on the joke, it's another where you make the joke the entire performance.

Allow me to explain.  Everyone in The Avengers, in particular the leads, are one-note.  That is bad enough, but compounding the situation is the fact that Chechik (as well as Fiennes and Thurman) mistake being unflappable (always a good British quality) with being idiots.  There is a scene right after The Infamous Teddy Conference (much more on that later) where Steed and Peel come across two large teddy bears at a conference table.  They take the teddy bear heads off to reveal two characters we've never seen or heard of until now.  "Oh look, it's so-and-so".  "Yes, and this is someone else", at which point they leave to continue hunting down anyone else still around.

Neither Steed or Peel are fazed to come across two corpses which are inside giant teddy bear costumes.  Nothing at all odd about that is how they appear to behave.  Neither are they fazed when they are being chased by a giant swarm of robotic Killer Bees (they may have been wasps, but I can't help reflecting on the Saturday Night Live sketch about "Killer Bees").  Nothing fazes them...and THAT'S the problem.    Even in the worst James Bond film 007 showed he was up to the task of dispatching the villain and he expressed moments of fear or trepidation that he may end up getting killed.  Here, Steed and Peel are TOO unflappable, and this only makes them come off as cartoonish, ridiculous, almost non-human. 

One would think Bond would simply burst out laughing if he came across a couple of bodies in teddy bear outfits.  If not him, certainly the audience.  I get what Chechik was going for: everyone was going to play it as if the silly world The Avengers was creating made sense, but even in what are suppose to be the most dangerous situations (such as when Mrs. Peel and her double are fighting in a balloon over Trafalgar Square), neither Peel or Steed appear particularly concerned or worried or afraid.

In short, if they don't appear bothered by destroying the statue of Horatio Nelson at his Column, why should we?

This decision to play everything as though the characters are too cool to be fearful or amused or any emotion really sucks the life out of the characters.  Fiennes is so stiff as Mr. Steed, making him part-moron and part-witless (as in without wit despite his various efforts to sound clever). 

Thurman likewise decided Mrs. Peel was going to be all style and slinky outfits and poses rather than a questionable potential double agent.  When presented with evidence that she might be a cold-blooded assassin (videotape of her killing and blowing up a building), Thurman doesn't register any reaction whatsoever.  She is too cool and nonchalant about the whole thing, and doesn't even appear concerned in the least that either she committed a major crime or that someone who looks exactly like her committed a major crime.  It defies logic to have the leads behave in this nonchalant, almost dismissive manner. 

When it comes to Fiennes and Thurman, their delivery of every line (be it a poor attempt at witticism or serious) is so fake, forced, one-note, unnatural, affected and exaggerated to believe they are real people (let alone people falling for each other).

I digress to wonder if Mrs. Peel is the potential assassin she is thought of by The Ministry, why on Earth would they hire her to be Steed's partner?

We can never know the characters because they are so wrapped up in thinking they are being clever and stiff upper-lipped that they never become human, and their travails are of no interest to us.

Connery appeared to go to other way, to be so over-the-top that even Drax from Moonraker would tell him, 'tone it down'.  I can't imagine he wanted people, or at least me, to burst out laughing when he delivers lines such as, "One should never fear...being wet", but laugh I did.  In fact, when he spoke that line, with his strong Scottish brogue only enhancing the reading, I was howling with laughter, so much so that I kept rewinding the scene so as to enjoy his lavish rendition of a Scottish villain (including emphasizing the word "wet", which became funnier and funnier with every hearing).

Let's move on to the actual script, penned by Don MacPherson (adapted from the series created by Sydney Newman, who also created the long-running science-fiction show River Song, which used to be called Doctor Who).   Somehow, I have to believe The Avengers was either suppose to be a spoof of James Bond films or what a Bond film on acid would look like. 

I note the River Song (formerly Doctor Who) connection because in one scene, it soon becomes apparent that Mrs. Peel is running down the same hallway.  At least in what was called Doctor Who, we were suppose to pretend it was a different hallway.  Here, we are told it's the same one. 

How else to explain a scene that will go down as one of the flat-out weirdest, most ridiculous and illogical in film history: the Infamous Teddy Bear Conference.  Allow me to set up said scene: we come across a meeting of a group of large teddy bears at a conference table.  At the head of the table, we find a large black teddy, and the head is removed to reveal Sir August De Wynter (as if we didn't already know that).  He helpfully tells us in exposition dialogue that the identities of those at this conference cannot be known, even by each other, so they must be disguised.

I ask, 'disguised as teddy bears? Seriously?'

Wouldn't simple masks work?  And why do they have to keep their identities secret from each other if they had been working with Sir August on his plans?

No one, not Chechik, not MacPherson, and not Warner Brothers said, "you're going to have a group of people dressed as giant teddy bears, and that doesn't STRIKE you as slightly idiotic?"  I never thought I had to tell people who are paid to make films, of whom one expects some level of ability, that dressing people up like big teddy bears won't create menace but piles of laughter.  Yet, it appears they didn't understand that.

MacPherson's story doesn't make any sense; perhaps it's because the film in its 90 minutes is so rushed to where it becomes either incoherent.  I imagine it is because what passes for a story is really an excuse to have Fiennes and Thurman literally strike a pose and say words given to them.  How did Sir August get a doppelganger of Mrs. Peel (or why for that matter)?  How or why did "Father" join this plot (the fact that we're given this piece of information somewhere before the mid-point is another disastrous decision)?  What does the invisible Colonel Jones (Patrick Macnee in a cameo) have to do with anything? At least Macnee was invisible, so he was spared having to literally be seen in this disaster (and Dame Diana Rigg had the good sense to not be part of this fiasco...maybe that's why she's a Dame). 

Joel McNeely's score only underscored (pun intended, why not given how awful some of the "witty banter" was) how silly the entire film was.  Animal House went for the same thing: Elmer Bernstein's score making the silliness of everything try to be serious, but at least Bernstein was in on the joke and it was SUPPOSE to be silly.  The Avengers doesn't have that cover.  Even the closing song, Storm, sung by MISS Grace Jones, ends up sounding like a bad Bond song knockoff.

Time after time, The Avengers was trying so hard to be taken seriously, but time after time, it kept doing things that made it look all the more ridiculous and laughable.   However, I can't say I didn't enjoy it: I laughed quite a lot at it, and marvelled at how two Oscar nominees (Fiennes and Thurman), an Oscar winner (Connery) and a future Oscar winner (Broadbent) could act so badly.  Have they ever apologized for The Avengers I wonder. 

The Avengers is, in its way, a marvel: of how inept a group of professionals can be when they mistake style for substance.  In terms of an actual film, The Avengers is just a sorry excuse for a film.  It's an unintended comedy, the closest we may come to seeing an Ed Wood film post-mortem.

And that's the way the teddy bears end their meeting...

The general question at the end of The Avengers is usually, "What the HELL?"


Can you imagine, Mr. Steed? 
The children think they can do better.
Balderdash, Mrs. Peel. 
NOBODY Does It Better. 

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