The Avengers

This big-budget version of the well-liked 1960s TV series (which I’ve never seen) smells like something cooked up by a talent agency that still thinks a film is just the sum of its thespian parts. Stars Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman, and Sean Connery may seem well-positioned to breathe life into a tongue-in-cheek action pic derived from these most stylish, rough-and-tumble icons of British urbanity, but who thought that director Jeremiah Chechik (1996’s atrocious Diabolique) and screenwriter Don MacPherson (Absolute Beginners) were the ones to pull it off?

We get an abundance of semi-clever bons mots, gleaming cinematography by ace lensman Roger Pratt, and production design that exhumes the corpse of dear RenĂ© Magritte in a dubious quest for that surrealist touch. Worse, director Chechik seems to have graduated from the Joel Schumacher School of Action Choreography. Every fight sequence is made up of a quick series of closeups of limbs and bodies flailing about, cut together in a rhythm that’s meant to suggest physical contact. Then, when the camera gives us another wide shot, we have a couple of seconds to try and figure out what the hell just happened before the next series of closeups. Even the special effects seem like ungainly afterthoughts, cobbled together on the cheap. (The giant teddy bears are easily the best thing in the film.)

As for the performances, who could tell there was a director present on the set at all? Fiennes and Thurman deliver their lines like they’re reading the script for the first time around the coffee table in some Los Angeles hotel. Fiennes is lost in this material, like a smiling passenger who’s trapped in the wreckage after a car crash. Thurman once again proves that she’s one of the screen’s most beautiful women, and that she can’t act her way out of a shopping bag, much less a black leather catsuit. Connery is appropriately blustery as meteorological madman August De Wynter, but Connery could bluster in his sleep. Given that cast, this movie should have enough raw charisma to balance the most daunting shortcomings.

What it can’t overcome is a lack of story, character, or even any idea of what it means to move a narrative along from plot point to plot point. The Avengers lurches like a movie that was edited to the bone, and maybe it would make a little more sense in a longer version. What’s on the screen, however, comes as close as any movie I’ve seen lately to utter ineptitude. There’s no rhythm, no style, and precious little that could be construed as fun.

Directed by Jeremiah Chechik
Written by Don MacPherson
Cinematography by Roger Pratt
Edited by Mick Audsley
Starring Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman, and Sean Connery
USA, 1998
Theatrical aspect ratio: 1.85:1