How Now Brown Cow?
Well, not so good, if you’re a dedicated fan of the Avengers TV series. Watching it on television 30 years ago, we all had the benefit of discovering a show that’s main virtue was charm, wrapped up stylishly in a by-then familiar spy series costume.
This big budget American version – though more respectful to its source – has the same faults as this year’s Godzilla remake: it’s been overproduced and pre-fab packaged for spoon-fed Yankee consumption. Heroic agents John Steed and Emma Peel were generally calm and cool no matter how dangerous the situation, so the ’90s Steed and Peel (Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman) are played even more calm and cool – so much so that they frequently appear unconscious. I sometimes wondered if they were there at all, behind the gorgeous apparel.
Like Warner’s recent Batman movies, they’ve gone for style over substance to the point that only a shorthand, sound bite version of the original’s strengths remain. An early scene tells the tale: John Steed is introduced taking a stroll through an English village that becomes a gauntlet of assassins. Everyone he meets is actually a fellow agent out to test him, and the entire village is only a hollow backdrop. This was meant to be clever, but it turns out to be ironic. I understand that the film takes place in a fantasy world where the ’60s continued into the ’90s, but there’s no reason it shouldn’t be an engaging place to visit.
And as long as we’re in a fantasy world, why not one where Steed and Peel can square off against agents of “the other side”? Somewhere in its journey through development, somebody thought it was a good idea to make this a disaster movie, too. So we get villain Sean Connery (ala Vincent Price) taking over newly-created (in part by Dr. Emma Peel) weather control technology, huffing and puffing at the vacant streets of a miniature London.
Above all, why not use more than a bit of Laurie Johnson’s excellent original theme music? Nothing set the stage for the series’ breezy atmosphere better and Joel McNeely’s moody work doesn’t fill the bill.
Okay, so the movie’s a sham. But once I get beyond it’s weaknesses, this may turn out to be a guilty pleasure, as there’s plenty to be enjoyed. For starters, there’s an outstanding title sequence. It has little to do with The Avengers, but it’s plenty cool. Everything in the film is wonderfully designed and executed, down to the smallest visual detail.
Most impressively, it’s been a long while since I’ve seen such an expensive film that was so willfully goofy. Case in point: when our heroes need to infiltrate our villains’ island hideout in the middle of the Thames, what do they do? No, they don’t jump in a boat or even a helicopter – they calmly walk across the river in big plastic bubbles. Now how did they think of that?