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Review: 'The Avengers' is retro-boring

Web posted on: Friday, August 21, 1998 10:29:00 AM

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Your guess would be as good as mine as to exactly what's supposed to be going on in Jeremiah Chechik's "The Avengers," and that's even if you haven't seen the movie. Personally, I don't have a clue. After about an hour of mulling the damn thing over, the only distinct conclusion I can come to is that Uma Thurman oughta be able to do a whole lot better than that greasy old Ethan Hawke!

Thurman's slinky physicality is just about the only human reason I could give you for sitting through the movie, but don't be tricked into thinking that that means she gives a detectable performance. Simply put, she wears great clothes and walks like a leopard. Hit the right Manhattan nightspots on a Saturday night, and you can get several hundred doses of this kind of thing in the course of an hour. Plus, there's liquor.

No worse than average rubbish

Based on the cult TV show from the 1960s, "The Avengers" is a gargantuan misfire, but it probably isn't the hilarious travesty that a lot of people are expecting it to be. A big deal has recently been made of the fact that Warner Bros. chose not to screen the picture for critics before its release.

A good move, to be sure, but I'd be hard-pressed to explain why this one gets the cautionary treatment when so much utter rubbish gets enthusiastically dumped into our theaters every summer, accompanied by an advertising blitzkrieg worthy of the Third Reich.

"The Avengers" is real, real no-good, though its obsession with style and color makes it a reasonable piece of useless eye-candy. A great, big, boring multi-million dollar piece of useless eye-candy.

Thurman and Ralph Fiennes star as super-spies Emma Peel and John Steed, the characters most famously played by Diana Rigg and Patrick Macnee in the TV show. Part of what's wrong here (and it's a perfectly obvious Hollywood dumb-dumb move to ignore it) is that there aren't very many people out there who were itching for a movie to be made of the series in the first place.

'Everybody else' is doing it

You can just hear the logic: "Everybody else is making movies out of half-remembered TV shows, and we don't want to be left behind." Though it still has a small cult audience, the show's tone smacks of a plastic hip -- not to be confused with the surgically installed kind -- that was very specifically a part of London's "swinging" '60s. Or, at least, what the commercial entertainment industry perceived London in the swinging '60s to be.

The show was almost casually absurd, but in a self-knowing way. Andy Warhol must have eaten it up. Nothing made much sense (the movie certainly nails that, although mostly unintentionally), but the real fun was in the flirtatious interplay between Macnee and Rigg. The theme music played, bippity-bippity-bippity, Rigg kicked someone in the face with one of her gorgeous gams, she and Macnee flirted while drinking some tea, and the show was over. Maybe, if you were lucky, a common household appliance spewed nerve gas on everyone.

Critical outlook bleak for 'Avengers'
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In the movie, on the other hand, sexual chemistry is in woefully short supply, and the witty banter is often far less than witty. I feel compelled to poke fun at Fiennes for bothering to appear in this mess, but he's too good an actor to tease. His performance in "Schindler's List" is one of the greatest pieces of work that I've seen this decade, and he always looks great onscreen. Here, though, he's just one more piece of scenery, this time in a three-piece suit and a bowler.

'Badminton with a lead birdie'

He and Thurman toss the dialogue back and forth, but it's like they're playing badminton with a lead birdie. Thurman's Emma is so distanced you feel like you're watching her through the wrong end of a telescope. She also adopts that uber-bored Naomi Campbell tone of voice when she speaks. The only life I felt between Fiennes and Thurman was when they engaged in a wholly unmotivated bit of fencing; there's a refreshing freedom of movement in the sequence that's nowhere to be found anywhere else in the film.

Not to sully the word, but the "plot" concerns itself with a madman (played by Sean Connery) who's figured out how to control the weather. He's out to rule the world with this power, and is real noisy about it, but, frankly, who gives a fat rat?

Connery is tap-dancing for a paycheck, spitting out silly dialogue in that "shufferin' shuckatash" voice of his that makes him sound like he's got a four-course meal stored in his cheeks for later use. (My mom has a theory that he's got loose dentures. That's when you know it's time to quit playing James Bond.)

Fiennes and Thurman drive around in fancy cars, periodically visiting Connery, or being visited by his henchmen (the main one being the brilliantly verbal British comic, Eddie Izzard, who isn't even allowed to talk)!

Sequences that are supposed to be tense suddenly end, then you're somewhere else with no explanation as to how you got there. Characters appear out of the blue, hang around for a while, then disappear. It's like the whole movie was thrown against a wall, and whatever stuck was included in the final cut.

There's also a scene in which our heroes' car is set upon by a bunch of huge, robotic mosquitoes. God only knows what that has to do with the weather, though. Those mosquitoes are inadvertent metaphors for the movie as a whole -- big, ungainly contraptions that don't make a lick of sense, bug you, and eventually crash and burn in the British countryside.

"The Avengers" is nowhere near as loud as it could have been, thank goodness. There's nothing that's really all that objectionable, as far as sex or language goes. You see a passing glimpse of Fiennes' behind when he's in the sauna. I'm supposed to let you know. Rated PG-13. 91 minutes, which is unexpectedly merciful.

Warner Bros., a Time Warner property, is a sister company to CNN Interactive.

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