Cards on the table: I've never seen a single episode of the beloved British television series The Avengers. As such, I am unqualified to say whether or not the 1998 film The Avengers faithfully captures the spirit of the series. However, as a human being with functioning eyes, ears and a brain, I do feel confident in telling you that The Avengers is a painfully bad piece of filmmaking that manages to make its scant 89-minute running time feel like hours.
The plot is more than a little murky, but let's give it a shot. John Steed (Ralph Fiennes, The Constant Gardener) is a British spy who works for an organization called The Ministry. It's run by pair of eccentric people named Mother and Father, but the joke is that Mother is a man (Jim Broadbent, Topsy-Turvy) and Father is a woman (Fiona Shaw, The Black Dahlia). That's arguably the most sophisticated joke the film has to offer. Anyway, The Ministry has been working on something called The Prospero Project, which they hope will give them the ability to influence the weather. However, the project was recently sabotaged, and surveillance footage indicates that the culprit is Dr. Emma Peel (Uma Thurman, Pulp Fiction). Peel claims that she is innocent, so Mother tasks her with helping Steed track down the real villain.
That would be Sir August De Wynter (Sean Connery, The Hunt for Red October), an esteemed scientist and self-proclaimed weather enthusiast. On paper, the idea seems nifty: Connery as a mustache-twirling Bond villain. Alas, the character is a nonsensical creation that inspires an atypically horrible, phoned-in performance from Connery. He's unconvincing from the very moment he appears: a shot of De Wynter playing a pipe organ, Captain Nemo-style, features some spectacularly bad pantomiming from Connery. Despite his years of training in the Bond films, the actor seems incapable of selling a stupid double entendre like, “There's nothing wrong with getting wet,” or a dumb proclamation like, “Rain or shine, all is mine!” The low point of Connery's career arrives around the 30-minute mark, as he's required to don a large teddy bear suit and address a roomful of associates dressed up as teddy bears.
Still, at least Connery makes some sort of impression. The heroes struggle to register at all, as both Fiennes' oh-so-refined politeness and Thurman's foxy slyness are presented in the most generic manner possible. Making matters worse is the fact that the stars aren't able to generate any chemistry together, turning theoretically charming scenes of theoretically witty repartee into visual essays on “How Not to Flirt.”
Somewhere around the halfway point, the film shifts from being conventionally bad – limp direction, weak dialogue, clunky storytelling, bad acting – to incoherently bad. Without much warning, the movie shifts into blustery action mode, sending our heroes spinning into a series of noisy, nonsensical conflicts with Connery without much explanation or motivation. Here, it becomes obvious that sizable chunks of the film have been cut (indeed, Warner Bros. reportedly lopped a solid half-hour off the film's original running time). How bad is the movie? So bad that the producers ultimately felt that a confusing, incomplete, short version would be a more appealing than a full-length version that everyone could understand.
It's hard to say whether there's a version of this incredibly silly story that could have worked (the film often plays like an Austin Powers movie that wants to be taken seriously), but what the film desperately seems to need is a lighter touch. In the first scene, a flower pot falls from a high window sill and nearly lands on John Steed's head. He deftly steps out of the way, glances at the broken pot with a smile, picks up a flower and makes himself a little corsage. On paper, this must have seemed like a nice introductory beat. However, something feels off about the execution: the falling pot is accompanied by a “whooshing” sound that makes it sound as if a rocket is headed to earth, followed by a crashing sound that suggests someone hurtling through a stained glass window. That level of overstatement occurs to varying degrees throughout the entire film. Steed and Peel demand a movie that feels breezy, graceful and elegant, but they're trapped in the center of a chaotic thunderstorm.
Rating: ½★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 89 minutes
Release Year: 1998