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How real do you feel, Mrs Peel?

The Avengers 
(1998)

(SPOILERS) The 1990s witnessed a slew of attempts at rebooting old properties, from comic book fare to movies to big screen versions of much-loved television shows. With generally mixed-negative results. The likes of The Saint (1997), The Phantom (1996), The Shadow (1994) and Doctor Who (as a 1996 TV movie) predominated over rare successes like Mission: Impossible (1996), Blade (1998), Pierce Brosnan’s Bond and Batman (okay, the first was 1989). In most cases, the problems stemmed from an intention to refashion those characters or premises in the image of another existing hit, in the process capturing little of what made the material so compelling/popular in the first place. It’s possible that the bare bones The Avengers, equipped with a director with an actual vision and sensitively cast leads, could have made for a serviceable movie adaptation. Unfortunately, one ends up with a view that this is exactly why you shouldn’t exhume old material, plundering as it does the essential iconography but conveying none of the spirit, élan, style and wit exhibited by the series at its best.

That said, while I don’t think Jeremiah Chechik was the director for the job, neither do I think he was quite the train wreck choice of, say, Mark Steven Johnson when was entrusted with Daredevil (2003) and then Ghost Rider (2007), or David S Goyer with Blade: Trinity (2004). You can entrust Chechik with a big movie, but the issue then becomes one of whether you’re expecting a distinctive point of view with it. While it may not be entirely fair to judge The Avengers from the chopped down 89-minute release, there’s little sense he had one. 

Chechik paid lip service to the show’s stylistic elements, but he had little real insight into the attitude behind their presentation, less still how to carry that into a new version. Bond had evolved over time, so it was never overtly trying to capture an earlier period, but mid-to-late period of The Avengers was presenting a 60s fantasy of Edwardian attitudes and savoir faire. As a result, trying to remix that for the 90s immediately ran the danger of what it became: desperately thin, since the show’s flavour is both self-evident and elusive, built as it is on attitude and presentation rather than, per se, content (intricate plotting was only rarely everything to the series; it was more usually about the journey and idiosyncrasy than the destination).

We’re probably lucky The Prisoner didn’t get a shot at the big screen around this time; it would eventually surface as a 2009 mini-series, and it’s interesting to note that while it didn’t shit the bed in terms of forsaking the concept – on its own terms, it’s a reasonably serviceable piece of TV – it entirely failed to justify its existence (curious that the most retro thing in The Avengers movie is the use of the underground car park from the original Prisoner titles).

It isn’t that Chechik needed to be a director of great substance, but he did need a sensibility, and nothing he previously helmed – National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), Benny & Joon (1993), Diabolique (1996) – suggested one in the slightest. Indeed, following his collaboration with Chevy Chase, his excursions suggested nothing so much as a wannabe auteur floundering desperately as he claimed “I’m not just the Vacation guy, honest. I’ve got more strings to my bow”. Somehow, Jerry Weintraub, who had sold his interest in the TV show but retained the movie rights, came to regard him as the man for the job, and the rest earns its place in the annals of legendary flops.

None of which means David Fincher, who clearly knows his way around a sensibility and was mooting the project way back in 1993, in black and white, with Charles Dance (who might have been… interesting), would have been just the ticket. Anyone who has seen Mank will likely have reservations at the prospect of Fincher, in black and white, with Charles Dance.

There were other possibilities during The Avengers’ half-decade road to cinemas. Sam Hamm, still managing to get work on the basis of his contribution to Tim Burton’s Batman, rewrote the main characters and had his take rejected; like the eventual movie, he based his story on the first meeting between Steed and Mrs Peel. There were rumours of Mel Gibson (who, yeah… I think The Prisoner would have been more his cup of tea). Original series supremo Brian Clemens favoured Hugh Grant and Liz Hurley, who had the look, but I suspect less so the casual air of being above everything. Clemens, who has voiced idiosyncratic views on the “purity” of elements making up the show, also suggested “Americans making The Avengers is like making The Godfather in Watford”. I'm sure Guy Ritchie would be up for that.

There’s probably something to that view, although eventual director Chechik is Canadian, of course. Before he came on board, the movie had probably its briefest brightest moment when Nicholas Meyer got the gig and rewrote Don Macpherson’s screenplay (it would get a lot of that subsequently). Meyer is, of course, most famous for his input into big screen Star Trek (such that he’s seen – not entirely unjustifiably– as something of a saviour figure). But he also adapted and directed Time After Time, and I suspect his take on Avengers more followed this tone. Whatever it was, Warner Bros didn’t like it.

So it was Chechik and Macpherson, and then the casting proceeded… Kidman and Paltrow both turned down Mrs Peel (I could have seen the latter) before Uma Thurman eventually won the role. Both of them. She was coming off another bid for blockbuster success as Poison Ivy in the atrocious Batman and Robin (whatever you think of The Avengers…) and if Weintraub and Chechik were wholly enthusiastic, it shows they were probably consuming too much of August de Wynter’s fake snow.

Because Mrs Peel is utterly charmless in both persona and performance. Yeah, Uma fits the catsuit, but there’s more to it than that, or Hurley would have been the business. Thurman also has zero chemistry with her leading man. I’d like to say Ralph Fiennes at least fits the bowler, but he can’t even do that well. Remember in A Brief for Murder when Steed dons one several sizes too large?

It’s curious to witness just how wrong Fiennes, a very good actor, is. Thurman is simply something of a blank in her role(s), but Fiennes is actively awful. You look at his post-Amon Göth attempts to break into Hollywood, and the key to these leading men is a kind of watery-eyed vulnerability, from Quiz Show’s Charles Van Doren to Strange Days’ Lenny Nero. What they draw on – or play against – is his classical leading man looks, and the notion that they should be accompanied by sparkling charisma.

Because Fiennes has bags of presence, but not a surfeit of charisma; there’s a sense in his “naked” performance as Steed of a desperate striving for likeability, and you should never go begging for such things. A concerted lack of ease accompanies his attempts to embody Steed’s consummate ease. To the extent that, had Chechik had everything in check and the screenplay been everything it needed to be, The Avengers would still have come unstuck in its choice of male protagonist. In this case, I don’t know that they were wrong to pursue Fiennes – on paper he seems entirely right – but after a few days of filming they ought to have recognised something was very off. He’s closer to one of Bertie Wooster’s hapless chums than a debonair spy.

That’s not to say I can suggest a fitting alternative; Hugh or Colin Firth tend to get mentioned, but I remain to be convinced. I saw Rupert Everett proposed, and he was probably the closest to someone with a natural wit who could pull it off during that period. Very different to Patrick Macnee, though. Macnee’s quality is one-off, rather like his pal Roger Moore’s in that it’s all about apparent effortlessness and confidence, where less emoting is always better.

Michael Richardson’s Bowler Hats and Kinky Boots provides a good account of the progress of the movie adaptation, if you want to learn more. It’s notable that additional old-hand cameos were suggested besides Macnee’s Invisible Jones – Diana Rigg turned down nanny Alice, Joanna Lumley also nixed a role – and that Michael Caine had already turned down de Wynter when Connery agreed to it (if Caine turned it down, that tells you something…) Michael Kamen was the confirmed composer until the constant reedits and varying tonal requirements caused him to move on to Lethal Weapon 4 (replaced by Joel McNeely’s entirely forgettable contribution).

You come across these utterly flaccid, paceless disasters at points, where there’s never any doubting why they failed; similarly beleaguered 90s fare includes Highlander II (1991), Freejack (1992), Robocop 3 (1993), Super Mario Bros (1993), Beverly Hills Cop III (1994), Judge Dredd (1995), Escape from L.A. (1996), Batman & Robin (1997), Speed 2 (1997) and The Haunting (1999). In The Avengers’ case, it isn’t particularly about visible production woes – the opening titles are dreadful, but the film generally looks polished thanks to its utilising Roger Pratt as DP, and even the killer bees effects are reasonable – it’s about an absence of alchemy in any department. The most that’s admitted to is a hollow sense that the TV show was in some ways retro so the movie needs to be. No one on board seems to know how to embrace The Avengers’ particular Englishness, either in dialogue or in scenarios. Certainly not in copious references to cups of tea – and macaroons – and umbrellas, rolling out the Bentley and putting Steed in the buff in a sauna with a broadsheet to hide his modesty.

Which is another problem. The humour too frequently veers towards the Carry On rather than the witty or sophisticated. Could it be any other way? There’s no trusting the audience: Emma getting an eyeful of Steed’s very British cock; “You can have a good ten inches overnight, there”; “I was frozen STIFF”; What I assume is a blowjob allusion when Sir August is playing croquet with Father (Fiona Shaw).

There’s little fun to be had from the villainy either. There are moments where Connery’s de Wynter is veering towards Windsor Davies, others where he becomes a would-be-rapist, and too few where he exudes the playfulness of a knowing and urbane Avengers bad guy. De Wynter is a Former ministry official and “fanatical meteorologist” (“He thinks British weather has been tampered with by aliens. All very hush-hush”).

In the movie’s grab bag of series riffs, there are at instances, perhaps by dint of odds, of inventive and striking scenes and moments. Chechik gets the series’ empty streets down pat, and he’s enjoys emphasising such landmark iconography as red telephone boxes. There’s a scene where August addresses his board, the assembly all dressed in giant teddy bear outfits. More commonly, though, Sir August is a standard ranting villain, and Connery’s decision to board the movie really does seem to be more about playing golf with Weintraub than being smart about the material (I do believe he’d seen the original, mind, particularly if he vetted Blackman as his Goldfinger co-star).

Then there’s August’s plan; a year after Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, it seems faintly cheesy but without the send-up. “Now is the winter of your discontent” mocks de Wynter as he warns that “Hundreds of millions will die. They’ll drown, burn, freeze”. The ultimatum being, “You will buy your weather from me. And by God, you’ll pay for it”. In the form of ten percent of GNP annually. The details of the demand might be quite cute and amusing, except that they’re delivered without any such dimension.

If the lack of outright intent on world domination is marginally different to that of a standard megalomaniac, many of the tropes and devices are a mish-mash of standard science fiction. Or fact. Augustus’ weather control is nothing new, least of all in the series itself – A Surfeit of H₂0 – and is commonly attested to with the likes of HAARP and Californian or Australian wildfires (when it isn’t down DEWs). Then there are the clones. Well, doppelgängers were fairly common in the show (usually of Steed), but you really need to know the main character before you try to distinguish between him/her from the fake.

Hinging so much of the plot on a cloned Mrs Peel is additionally incongruous as it seems to have been dropped in with no other connective tissue (there’s a covering line that Sir Augustus was overseeing such a programme while at the Ministry). It’s indicative of how incoherent many of the incidental elements are (the reference to aliens is surely because they felt they needed to acknowledge The X-Files/MiB/Independence Day zeitgeist). Then there are the killer bee robot drones. Now of course, killer robot drones are everywhere. Only not of the bee variety. Yet.

That sequence of chase reshoots added $2m to the budget when Warner were still throwing money at the movie, trying to fix it (unfortunately, they needed to fix not caring about any of the characters). Before they decided to dump it, having persuaded Chechik to whittle it down to 89 minutes. Based on the final draft screenplay, Richardson suggests thirteen minutes at most (as opposed to forty-five) were removed, so perhaps not the holy grail of director’s cuts there. Chechik himself has claimed twenty minutes. Seeing the original cut holds curiosity value, but I doubt it would reveal a substantially improved movie. The screenplay had clearly been messed with enough by that point anyway, and the casting killed outright any chances it had of pulling through.

But there are things I like here, besides the teddy bear costumes. It’s faint praise, but the movie is fairly painless to watch until the third act, however wrong-headed it may be. Izzard and Ryder make decent silent henchmen (until the former egregiously yells “Fuck!” at the point of his demise, in order to guarantee a 12 rating). Izzard in particular offers Randall and Hopkirk meets The Sweeney look. Eileen Atkins is aces. Jim Broadbent makes a decent Mother (chain smoking, curiously). Macnee’s cameo is quite nice (“Talk to the pipe. That usually helps”). There’s a magnificent false-perspective staircase during a sequence of Mrs Peel’s disorientation that evokes the likes of Pandora and The House that Jack Built. Alas, it simultaneously evidences just how wasteful these grand productions are (like its design, the sequence leads nowhere). A very young Keeley Hawes turns up and would have been a much better choice for Mrs Peel (although, maybe a few years later). Fiona Shaw might have been a better Father if she hadn’t been established as vituperative from the off. John Wood had previously appeared in The Bird Who Knew Too Much doing a very good Benedict Cumberbatch, so Macnee wasn’t the only old series actor to return.

And obviously, much more doesn’t work. Steed and Mrs Peel walking across water in hamster balls suggests The Hour That Never Was, but in an over-planned sort of way. Big Ben exploding now seems like it was just giving Russell T Davies ideas. Connery’s demise is Highlander (1986) redux. You know something’s amiss when the original Laurie Johnson theme seems entirely out of place and ill-suited. Steed’s “I think we deserve some champagne” at the climax is exactly the kind of blundering, crudely inappropriate line that evidences how muddled the movie was.

Christopher Bray (in Sean Connery: The Measure of a Man) probably had it right when he focused on the issues with adapting the series: “The Avengers was always going to have problems, if only because the original TV series remains so fondly remembered… The Avengers is a curious show in that one actually finds oneself growing into it. Looking back, you realise the series wasn’t really meant for the children of the sixties at all, but for those adults who had grown increasingly mystified by The Beatles’ artistic progress and yet admitted that their Edwardian hankerings and borrowings did have a certain charm... And since the original series’ debts to the domesticated surrealism of Magritte and Max Ernst meant that no episode ever really made any kind of sense even within its own terms, all those stars [Fiennes, Broadbent, Atkins, Shaw, Izzard] can perhaps be excused for having missed the fact that what they are working on plainly had no plot, less dialogue and even less intelligence”.

The Avengers cost $60m and only made $55m (a miracle it earned even that much) The studio, in requesting reformatting as a more traditional action vehicle after negative test screenings, went the route any new big screen attempt would surely follow. I suspect we dodged a bullet when Shane Black’s The Predator bombed and with it any chance of his Avengers series getting off the ground; he should stick to Doc Savage, or Clemens’ words will again seem like the sage advice. The Avengers isn’t a good movie. At the same time, its stinker quality is probably exaggerated. It would surely have floundered without an edit imposed on its director, because he and his producer cast it so badly in the first place. There’s still enough of the original show’s imprint here, though, to see that something might have been, had good sense and taste not spurned the project.


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