The Moviehunter

Pulp Culture
'The Avengers'
proves we're no
longer British

August 27, 1998
By Franklin Harris

In case you forgot during the furor that followed last year's death of Princess Diana, we Americans are no longer British subjects. And it shows -- at least when it comes to our attempts to remake classic British television programs.

As fan of the original television series upon which it was based, I wanted to like the big-budget, feature-film version of "The Avengers." I mean I really, really wanted to like it. I wanted it to be so wonderful and such a box-office success that I would be treated to sequel after sequel, until I had seen all of the Avengers films I could possible stomach.

Having seen what Hollywood has dished up, however, I can't say I'm disappointed by the unlikelihood of seconds.

Originally broadcast on British television from 1961 to 1969, "The Avengers" starred Patrick Macnee as the unflappable secret agent John Steed and, during its best years (1966-1968), Diana Rigg as "talented amateur" Emma Peel. (Steed's other partners included future Bond girl Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale and Linda Thorson as Tara King.)

Rigg's second season, which also was the first season filmed in color -- or is that "colour?" -- was America's first exposure to what would become a cult favorite.

While only rarely (until its final season) venturing into the realm of full-blown camp, "The Avengers" proved to be a tongue-in-cheek take on the spy-adventure genre. Wit and style were Steed and Mrs. Peel's most effective weapons. The fashions were always in season. The cars were always fast. The dialogue was always razor-sharp. And the situations were often simply surreal.

It was obviously too much to ask for an American-produced version of "The Avengers" to live up to the standards set by the oh-so-British original. But that the American version fails as grandly as it does surprised even me.

Ralph Fiennes plays Steed this time out, while the costume -- if not the role -- of Mrs. Peel is filled by Uma Thurman. Sean Connery is aboard as the villain, Sir August de Wynter, who, as his name might suggest, has more than a passing interest in the weather.

It's a likeable, if miscast, group of actors.

Fiennes seems uneasy as Steed, a character who should always exude assured smugness. Thurman, meanwhile, is totally out of her depth. Sure, she looks great in Emma Peel's trademark leather cat suits, but, in this case, clothes don't make the woman. Thurman seems as uncomfortable in her role as Fiennes does in his.

Only Connery seems to be having fun with his part, and I can't imagine why. He's given almost nothing to do.

Making matters worse, as usual, is a poor script, which gives audiences only glimpses of the surreal looniness that gave the television show its distinctive favor. Only the scene in which the villains hold a meeting while disguised as giant teddy bears lets you know that the screenwriter has seen even one episode of the original.

Worst of all is the film's ending, which degenerates into the sort of pointless, explosion-laden grand finale that Hollywood producers seem to think must conclude all action films.

Watching "The Avengers" reminded me of everything that was wrong with the Fox network's 1996 "Doctor Who" television movie.

"Doctor Who" is another British television icon. It's a show about a time-traveling alien who routinely saves the universe by using his brain -- and sometimes a little trickery.

The Fox version, however, climaxed with lots of special effects and loud music, but with very little thought.

Are Americans just dumber than are our British cousins? I'd like to think not, but we do seem too willing to settle for less.

Of course, on the other hand, no one in America has yet thought of anything as moronic as "Benny Hill."

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