Monday, April 30, 2007

Academy of the Underrated: The Avengers (1998)

So I was thinking a bit about what to do for my hundredth post. I wanted to do something emblematic of the site, and nothing in theaters, my recent purchases, or my latest Netflix arrivals seemed to fit. And then it came to me. The review I had written before, would have to write again, and absolutely had to write for this blog at some point. One of my most passionately held opinions ever. And a great way to inaugurate a new feature for the site; "Academy of the Underrated" will spotlight that which I believe has gotten a raw deal, something I've sort of done before and will certainly do again. (I'll also be applying the tag retroactively to a couple of pieces already in the archives.) And to kick it off, a film that may not be the most underrated ever, but is damn close. At least I think so. C'mon, give me a chance here.

THE AVENGERS was released in 1998 amidst a swarm of bad buzz, that only intensified once critics finally got a look at the film (there were no press screenings.) The film garnered not a single good review from any mainstream source, and even now only has maybe a couple counted by Rotten Tomatoes. Audiences didn't like it either, and it vanished from theaters in two weeks at most. Such was the sheer vitriol dumped on this film that, at the time, I was forced to question whether I really liked what I had seen or whether I'd just been looking forward to it and wanted it to be good. Subsequent viewings, however, have only strengthened my convictions. This is a minor jewel of a movie, capturing the whimsical surrealism of the original television series while providing a unique look and feel of its own. It's quite unlike any other film I've seen even to this day, and though studio interference led to the loss of a lot of plot-related material, what's left holds together well.

Ralph Fiennes plays the role of John Steed, dashing top agent at "The Ministry", the UK's most elite and vaguely defined counterintelligence network. For his latest assignment, the bowler-hatted superspy is assigned to meet up with Dr. Emma Peel (Uma Thurman), currently a scientist working on the Ministry's top secret Prospero weather shield, and suspected of blowing up the research lab and sabotaging the project. (In the meantime, rapid weather changes are taking place all across the British Isles, but because of studio cuts we only get a few passing references to this.) Ministry head "Mother" (Jim Broadbent, at the beginning of his "in every vaguely British film ever made" phase) suspects something else is at work, and so assigns Steed and Peel to look for the real enemy. In no time at all the two encounter a new prime suspect, former agent Sir August De Wynter (Sean Connery), a demented genius with a weather fetish and head of a private company, Wonderland Weather, which promises it can deliver weather over the phone to anyone with a radio transmitter and (presumably) gobs of money to spend. And it seems there's a second Mrs. Peel running about, under De Wynter's control. It doesn't take long for Steed and Peel to work out that something very odd is going on.

As mentioned before, the film was edited pretty heavily by its studio, following a poor test screening- Warner Bros. actually issued a denial of this once or twice, but considering that the missing scenes appeared in the trailers and composer Joel McNeely even got as far as scoring them, it's pretty clear what happened. (The screenplay was published in the UK, and it's the best source for finding out what the extra material consisted of.) Much of what was cut consisted of exposition (always what you want to go for first in the editing process), and critics declared what was left to be incomprehensible. For my part, I was able to follow what was happening without any prior knowledge of the plot, so the necessary info is definitely there, but it may take more attention than usual to pick up some of the minor details. However, the main story pretty much follows the basic "super spies vs. evil mastermind" structure, so details aside, that thread is easy to follow.

The first big point in this movie's favor is that, however odd the story may get at times, it's a treat for the eyes. Stuart Craig's production design blends Sixties modism with contemporary "Cool Britannia" culture to create not just a nice aesthetic, but what comes off as a complete and distinct world, one in which impossible things happen every day and traditional Britishness is exaggerated to picture-postcard extremes. To me, this sort of thing was always the appeal of the original series; it set itself apart from the rest of the Sixties spy wave by taking pop surrealism to a phantasmagoric level. Here, we have such treats as Steed coming across a lone phone kiosk in a sudden windstorm which turns into a blizzard that coats Sir August's grounds in white within minutes, a hidden camera in a peacock's "eye", Emma trapped in an Escheresque maze, and best of all, a magnificently loopy moment wherein Sir August and his henchmen hold a meeting dressed as giant teddy bears. (The sight of the plush teddies silently nodding and sheepishly raising their hands as their leader lectures them is downright hilarious.) Roger Pratt, the cinematographer on BRAZIL and Tim Burton's BATMAN, gives this all a necessary verisimilitude; as crazy as everything is, it feels strangely authentic.

It goes without saying that this is not a film which takes itself terribly seriously. It's not an outright comedy, but its emphasis on weird and bizarre happenings and our heroes' unflappable reaction marks this as less of an action film and more an out-and-out fantasy. There are constant allusions to Lewis Carroll's ALICE IN WONDERLAND, among other references (a chess game that Steed and Peel play is apparently the same as that in BLADE RUNNER, though I didn't compare moves myself), and both Sir August and Mother state in separate scenes that nothing is impossible. If there's a theme to this film, it's that anything can happen and the world is basically chaotic, and the best attitude is to simply be prepared for anything. Steed is introduced in a scene where he completes a training course by walking through an English village and fending off attacks by PCs, milkmen, mechanics, and old ladies pushing prams; Emma takes a little while to get used to the world she's thrown into, but learns to take things in stride as well. Meanwhile, the villain reacts to the world by attempting to control the uncontrollable, specifically the weather; Sir August tries to command nature, breeding impossible plants and sending swarms of robotic insects after our heroes (at the same time, he's a fairly chaotic fellow himself, prone to changing moods on a dime.) Of course, in many ways this is the central theme of many science fiction and fantasy action adventures- the villain seeks control, the hero seeks harmony- but it's interesting how the patterns of imagery and ideas in this one actually emphasize this theme. Maybe this was all completely unintentional, but it works out very nicely.

Of course, for fans of the classic Avengers, this film had one very basic and to many, insurmountable problem- Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman are not Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg. The original Steed and Peel had an amazing chemistry in addition to turning in brilliant and memorable performances just by themselves, and though Macnee was the only actor who was with the show from beginning to end, this particular pairing more or less WAS the program for a great many fans. Neither Fiennes nor Thurman really seem to model their performances on their originators, which is probably fair enough; even if actors with similar looks or personalities had been cast, they would have fallen short. As mentioned before, this was never a problem for me- the first episodes of the show I watched were those after Rigg had left to be replaced by Linda Thorson as the more traditionally girlish Tara King, and though I appreciate the genius of the Macnee/Rigg pairing it's not what makes the show for me.

And I have to say, the new actors do a good job if you can try to put the originals out of your mind for a bit (Macnee does have a cameo as an invisible records keeper, which is fun). Fiennes' Steed is a very understated kind of gentleman, a veteran agent who has seen everything and is surprised by nothing. It's an approach that fits with the overall theme of the film, and Fiennes is good at the kind of subtle expressions such a portrayal needs. Thurman is a bit less assured, lacking the seemingly effortless grace Rigg's Peel had and sometimes coming off just a bit dour, but in the end her natural charisma wins out. The two share a rather tender chemistry underneath a stereotypical English reserve. Sean Connery throws restraint to the wind for his baddie turn, and is pretty entertaining. Eddie Izzard plays Bailey, Sir August's main henchman, and is memorable despite not speaking (except in an obviously dubbed in "oh fuck" meant to garner the film a PG-13 rating- I'm not even sure they bothered to use him and not a soundalike, but then would they bother to hire a soundalike for a man who doesn't speak the rest of the movie?) The supporting cast is unimpeachable.

The one problem I'll really concede is the film's dialogue; Don Macpherson, despite an admirable job putting together the story and characters and so on, strained a bit hard in trying to replicate the snappy banter of the series, and we're left with far too many puns, sometimes piled on top of each other in the worst Bond film tradition. (Though it's still better than DIE ANOTHER DAY in this regard.) It takes some getting used to. Also, there is, against the better judgment of everyone involved, a "red wire"/"not-red wire" sequence that works out pretty much like you expect it to. There needs to be an embargo on this sort of thing.

After almost nine years and multiple viewings, THE AVENGERS still has some intangible quality to it, a weird magicalness that I can't pin down but which keeps me coming back. And to this day, I'll never fully understand the way it was so universally rejected. Sure, it was dumped by its studio (it hasn't even played basic cable), not screened for critics, a remake of a beloved property, and just "Americanized" enough (i.e. there's a kiss and some more explosions than usual) to get the British reviewers worked up, and I understand the fans of the original just not being impressed by the new actors, but you'd figure at least a cult would form eventually around something this strange. I continue to hold out hope, because it's almost sad to look at something as lovely as this knowing how it was treated. Someday it will get its due.

In the meantime I'd settle for a Director's Cut.

Written by Don Macpherson
Directed by Jeremiah Chechik

Grade: B+

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