Thursday, May 3, 2012

A Genetic Impossibility

Contrary to what you might believe from the name of this blog, the classic TV show THE AVENGERS isn’t really that much of a thing with me. The name Mr. Peel did come from my own particular fondness for Diana Rigg, the actress legendary for playing Mrs. Peel and that the character’s missing husband was named Peter Peel was a nice bit of happenstance for me (sending out regards to the indomitable M.A. Peel who I know really is a very big fan of the show) but even as far as that goes it all maybe has more to do with ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE than anything. Plus my interest in Diana Rigg has been kind of superseded by others as the years have gone on but, regardless, the name sort of stuck. I like the show THE AVENGERS very much, don’t get me wrong, but I haven’t seen an episode in years and I’ve always managed to resist the lure of that Complete Emma Peel Megaset on DVD. Even so, when the film of THE AVENGERS was announced in the late 90s it sounded like a terrific idea and the first trailers that appeared in early 1998 got me pretty excited. The cast was promising, the look was intriguing and the whole thing just seemed to exude a sense of cool. Shows you what I know. Word was out by the time the film finally appeared with zero critic screenings in the dead of August after being moved off a prime June slot and pretty quickly turned into a giant flop. If you’ve ever seen it then you know why. Some of THE AVENGERS does hit a certain odd tone that makes it tempting to consider that it got a raw deal at the time but those moments don’t last very long. Much as I hate to say something like this the film may really be a total miscalculation even if it is at least an attempt to do something a little different. The sad truth is that sometimes these things just don’t work at all.
Bowler-wearing John Steed (Ralph Fiennes), special agent of the Ministry, is assigned to meet with Dr. Emma Peel (Uma Thurman), brilliant scientist in charge of the Prospero Project, a giant weather-related shield being constructed. When they meet with Ministry head ‘Mother’ (Jim Broadbent) he informs them that Mrs. Peel, as she insists on being called, is in fact the chief suspect in a recent break-in at the Prospero labs which resulted in the place being blown up and they even have film of Mrs. Peel there. She protests her innocence and the investigation undertaken by Steed and Peel leads them to the spectacularly wealthy Sir August de Wynter (Sean Connery), who in collaboration with Ministry second-in-command ‘Father’ (Fiona Shaw), has his own plan to control all the weather on the planet imaginable and, of course, rule the world.
I’m not sure if that’s even a correct summary of the plot of THE AVENGERS since it’s honestly tough to tell at times and if it doesn’t sound like it makes much sense, well, there you go. Even when certain elements like the Emma Peel double remain active throughout they’re never explained very well at all and right from the beginning it’s hard not to wonder about the plot logic of Mrs. Peel being assigned to the case even though she’s the chief suspect. If that’s supposed to be part of the absurdity it doesn’t come off. If that’s just supposed to be the plot it never makes much sense. Not to mention that you’d think a movie, any movie, would be able to do something with the concept of having two Uma Thurmans running around but THE AVENGERS doesn’t even pull that off which maybe causes the entire thing to be a failure all on its own. Directed by Jeremiah Chechik (NATIONAL LAMPOON’S CHRISTMAS VACATION, BENNY & JOON), THE AVENGERS feels like a genuine attempt at making a big-budget franchise with style, evoking the cool of the 60s flavor in a way that isn’t chained down to strict realism, something that would be a little different than the typical bombastic 90s action or the way the genre was being spoofed in AUSTIN POWERS. But it feels like something was fumbled somewhere along the way as if the ideas they came up with during conception and in writing the screenplay simply didn’t translate combined with studio notes insisting that the whole thing be bigger, noisier, not so much emphasis on the wit.
Running just under 90 minutes (actually, if you cut the opening and closing credits it comes to about 81) it’s no surprise to learn that the film was substantially recut after poor test screenings and a number of deleted scenes can even be spotted in the trailer but whatever has been left in never really makes much sense at all—I don’t know any inside dirt but it seems that the film originally opened with a big action scene showing the Emma Peel double breaking into the Prospero lab, a pretty sizable lift and I wonder if the whole plotline of two Mrs. Peels just played as confusing. Much as I can appreciate a film that attempts to be genuinely bizarre in its stylistic approach there’s never anything here to grasp onto, no story that ever makes sense in any rational or irrational way so all we get are just Fiennes or Thurman raising an eyebrow at whatever odd thing is happening in the hope that some sort of joke will land. I doubt the extensive cutting helped matters but so many of the scenes that remain just sit there as flat as can be so I kind of doubt that this is a case where a studio butchered a masterpiece…or even something that was much more coherent. As it is, very little works at all, whether it has to do with the plot or whatever odd surrealism the film tries to inject. Even its basic conception of the two leads just seems wrong on a basic level with the needed chemistry never causing so much as a spark—Steed’s hat never looks quite right on Fiennes and the way Thurman is often made up (with awkward costumes, hair that doesn’t seem right and heavy eyeshadow that does her no favors) makes the actress look oddly unappealing, desexualizing what has to be one of the most desired female characters ever, which has to be some kind of neat trick.
While watching THE AVENGERS I find myself forced to address the issue of the difference between whimsically odd and just being weird for weird’s sake. Part of the visual conceit seems to be to make everything within the frame sparse, from the landscapes out in the country to the streets of London, devoid of people or much activity at all but the way it’s presented feels slightly off as if it’s not a style but an overall incomplete effect to the whole thing. You can feel the effort that is being put into it all in an old-school craftsman sort of way, reminiscent of any number of blockbusters made in England that were filmed at Pinewood or Elmstree studios but too much of the production design feels like it’s been seen before, overly reminiscent of films such as BRAZIL or Tim Burton’s first BATMAN and it prevents this film from ever achieving enough identity of its own. Cinematographer Roger Pratt (who shot both of those films, incidentally) at least provides for a clean sense of composition in his work, one area where it feel’s like someone’s own approach to the design comes together but there’s not enough going on around all that. When we get a brief look at security footage from the Prospero break in it appears to be intriguingly shot in a silent movie style of LES VAMPIRES or something and the unusual flavor it gives off does provide a momentary kick but such sparks feel too few and far between, with the film instead being more interested on giving us things like a godawful annoying action scene involving Steed and Peel being attacked by giant mechanical bees which just feels like it’s meant to be noisy. Part of the problem is scale and maybe the only way to do a film of THE AVENGERS would be to make it small, avoid the explosions and effects and bad guys trying to control the world and Big Ben exploding and sets and setpieces out of a Bond film. Keep some of that sparseness but instead make it a surreal mystery with odd science fiction elements and as much Steed-Peel patter as possible. Which of course is exactly what a would-be blockbuster meant to kick off a franchise isn’t allowed to do.
It’s easy to list the things that don’t work in THE AVENGERS but trying to imagine how they could have cohered into something that would have worked seems almost impossible. Actually, two separate characters state “Nothing is impossible” at different points in the film which is either thematic consistency or an odd redundancy, I’m still not sure which. Maybe the screenplay by Don McPherson was a case of something reading great on the page that just didn’t translate but I still wonder—the repartee between Fiennes and Thurman is often flatter than it should be and when the two of them try to banter I just zone out, as if I’m being lulled to sleep by the monotones of their voices. The words that are on the page also still feel a few high-paid rewrites away from feeling right with too many lame one-liners, a few pauses for teatime too many (taking the time for tea is all anyone ever needs to know about England, I guess) and unnecessary attempts at jokes when there should be, well, style. When the film has Steed and Peel kiss late in the film it makes sense that any diehard fan of the series would react in anger at what a violation it is but putting that aside it feels wrong for the film anyway and I almost wonder if it was a reshoot, an attempt at patching up what turned out to be zero heat between the two leads so the studio just decided to launch a Hail Mary pass to make it seem like they did. It doesn’t work. Every now and then a moment sticks out in a good way—the hypnotic effect those giant magnifiers have when Connery as Sir August steps forward to talk about the genetic impossibility of a flower that he created, when henchman Eddie Izzard tries on Steed’s hat and looks like he just stepped out of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE or best of all when Mrs. Peel is trapped in Sir August’s castle and in trying to escape finds herself trapped in a Möbius loop in the time honored KILL BABY KILL/TWIN PEAKS fashion. She eventually crashes out of a window to escape and when she finds herself back on temporal ground it feels a little like a letdown to be back in the ‘real’ world but for a few moments all the elements of whatever surrealism the production was going for have finally come together in the right way.
Unfortunately, moments like that don’t happen often enough. THE AVENGERS is meant to be about the conservative Steed placed up against the mod, stylish Mrs. Peel but none of that comes across, it’s just two people lightly (very lightly) bantering with one another for no real reason. The chemistry between the two leads is so nonexistent that maybe everyone should have called a halt to things on the first day of shooting and the film never gives the impression that it’s particularly excited that Sean Frigging Connery is playing the villain in it. Even after multiple times of watching the scene where his character is first mentioned I’m still not sure why they’re going to visit him beyond the fact that they need to introduce the bad guy and too much of the time the dialogue, exposition or patter, just makes no impression whatsoever as if it’s all delivered so flat that it just slips off the screen with some dialogue, like when Connery first meets Thurman, sounding tinny and dubbed (for more dubbing fun, at one point he’s heard to refer to ‘a million dollars’ when his lips seem to say ‘ a million pounds’ presumably an attempt to dumb things down further that just makes me shake my head). I’m guessing that his greeting the two lead characters separately with, “Peel. Emma Peel.” and “Steed. John Steed.” was mean to be a joke but the staging kills it each time.
When Connery’s Sir August assembles a team of cohorts dressed in giant teddy bear suits in what I suppose is supposed to be a spin on a Bond villain explaining a plot to a group of associates instead of being charming and surreal all it does is get me to wonder why I’m watching a scene with all these giant bear suits. Why are you doing this to me? Why are you making my head hurt? It’s a film where it feels like since nothing much works it depends on the music and you can feel Joel McNeely’s energetic score sweating as it works overtime to bring some life to all this, doing about as good a job as any mortal could with his main title in particular correctly evoking a certain mood. The legendary theme by Laurie Johnson also turns up at the beginning and end, so at least there’s that. Wind blows, explosions occur, people show up and disappear but not much of anything makes an impact. It’s all just noise, a joke being told by someone who doesn’t quite get the punchline. The film begins propelling itself towards the climax before it even hits the hour mark and all of the fights or explosions never feel like they matter, just as there’s never anyone seen out on the streets of London. Huge explosions aren’t what anyone wants to see in THE AVENGERS anyway, at least they shouldn’t be. What a shame. For a film that clearly wants to be stylishly sparse it merely feels absolutely empty. It isn’t cool.
Ralph Fiennes is obviously game as John Steed but maybe he doesn’t have the right sort of joie de vivre for this kind of role in his wheelhouse so the hoped-for light touch never happens and everything he does just seems to cruise along at the same low hum the entire time. Uma Thurman, who I normally find impossible to say anything bad about, simply doesn’t seem to have much of a clue how to play Emma Peel. When she’s trying to be light it’s too blithe, when she’s trying to be concerned it’s just a stage too panicked and ultimately she just doesn’t get the right tone at all (the Mrs. Peel clone she also plays never gets to exhibit any personality whatsoever so it doesn’t matter). When she’s being held captive while strait-jacked it’s easy to imagine Rigg playing it head cocked, emphasizing the lunacy with just the right dollop of concern in her huge eyes but Thurman just plays it for desperation so it doesn’t work. Maybe these roles really were meant to be played by Brits.
Sean Connery seems energetic and pleased to be there in a happy-with-the-trailer-he-was-given sort of way but the film ultimately does not much of anything with his presence, reducing most of his screen time to tiny little cameos where he banters with one of his co-stars. It’s all the more of a shame because this is as close as we’ll ever get to the daydream of seeing Sean Connery returning to the Bond series by playing a bad guy and the film just isn’t deserving of him. The British character actors who appear find more to do with the material—Jim Broadbent is enjoyable as always, spitting out dialogue fast as possible through his cigarette as ‘Mother’, Fiona Shaw offers the right kind of intensity to ‘Father’ even if little about her character feels like it makes any sense and Elieen Atkins as Ministry agent Alice, in what I’m assuming was a role offered to Diana Rigg, gets the tone in her dialogue that Uma Thurman totally misses, balancing out the right sort of absurdity and seriousness for the situation in her voice particularly in her answer when asked if Sir August tortured her. She’s only around for a few scenes and it’s not much but in this film it’s something. She also gets to share the screen with Connery at one point and it’s hard not to imagine how special that moment would have played with Diana Rigg but I suspect she knew how this would all turn out. Patrick Macnee, or rather his voice, turns up in a cute cameo as Invisible Jones who offers Steed some needed information. It’s kind of random and just weird for the sake of being weird but at least we get to listen to the voice of Patrick Macnee for a few minutes so I won’t complain. Eddie Izzard is Sir August’s henchman who (almost) never speaks, a conceit that shouldn’t necessarily mean that he doesn’t get anything to do but that’s pretty much how things work out, another joke in the film where ultimately there is no joke.
As the classic AVENGERS theme kicks up near the end, Steed and Peel sip some champagne and congratulate each other on ‘a job well done’. Well, we know otherwise. It’s too bad things turned out this way since it really does feel like there was a tone and spirit to nail that could have resulted in a good film. That’s the way it goes sometimes. For now, my fondness for Diana Rigg, as Mrs. Peel and other roles as well, will remain. And anyone who really does love THE AVENGERS has probably forgotten this film even existed by now. As time has gone on I’ve gotten less and less interested in writing about films that don’t work or, in some cases, are outright bad. Sure, sometimes it can be fun to talk about bad movies but more often for me it can just be depressing. But sometimes you just need to. Sometimes you need to remember the ones that were disappointing and try to understand why they turned out that way. And maybe it helps you remember why you wish you could love them as well. Because I wish I could love THE AVENGERS and kind of hate that I can’t. So I just go on writing things like this. And besides, I have to do something while continuing that search for my own Mrs. Peel.


Beveridge D. Spenser said...

I'm sorry that you are getting tired of writing about films that don't work, because you do it so well. I was reading bits of this one out loud to Ms. Spenser.

I guess you don't want to become the "watched this so you don't have to" guy. Maybe if you stuck to films that almost work, instead of total disasters like this.

And, of course, you've made me want to see it, just to see how bad it could be...

lrobhubbard said...

The visuals make it not a total loss, as well as Joel McNeely's score - and having read Don MacPherson's original script, it is a case where it looks much better on paper... although one wonders what a director who really understood things might've done.

I'd like to see that original cut - hamstrung as the movie is, they didn't do it any further favors by recutting.

Some still keep the flame burning:

And cdnchris on the Criterion Forum board provides a pretty thorough history on how the movie was butchered:

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Not so much tired of it, it can just be so much more satisfying to dig into something I love than the opposite. But I'm very gratified that you liked the piece so much. And if you do wind up seeing it, well, I wish you the best.


Yes, definitely some interesting history to whatever was going on with the film. The original cut may very well be better but there is still that lousy chemistry between the actors and other things that I'm guessing would still be present. If the script was considerably better then it really is too bad things turned out this way.

Mapeel said...

Catching up here, thanks for the shout out. I find the film completely unwatchable, and I have tried several times. It feels like it was done by people who had no real feeling for the original.

You should watch the B&W episode the idea of controlling the weather was taken from: Surfeit of H20. It would make a very nice balance to your recent screening.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Mrs. Peel--

I was hoping you'd turn up here sooner or later and what you said is pretty much dead on. Thanks for the recommendation, I'll try to seek that episode out.