One year after the death of Princess Diana, the British Empire takes it on the chin yet again with the release of "The Avengers," a merciless and unwarranted mangling of a beloved English institution.
The forecast was deceptively promising: Take one witty '60s TV series about a pair of debonair secret agents, cast the red-hot Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman in the lead roles, and send them off on an appropriately goofy mission to thwart an evil mastermind (Sean Connery) intent on controlling the weather. Along the way, throw in plenty of the spirited banter, karate-kicking action and bloodless combat that characterized the television series.
It's a pity that the concept was handed over to a creative team that displays absolutely no understanding of the winking satire that made the original "Avengers" such a jewel. Its wonderfully twisted view of a polite London gone pop-art mad has been replaced with the lowest form of crass stereotyping, in which the next lame gag about afternoon tea is never more than five minutes away. Worse, the producers seem to have been desperate to dumb down their project even further in order to appeal to American audiences: A reference by Connery to the sum of "one million pounds" has been looped in postproduction, with the word "dollars" substituted on the soundtrack.
Fans of TV's John Steed, Patrick Macnee, will find Fiennes too young for the part. And he exhibits neither the disarming joviality nor the deadly force under the surface of Macnee's delicately balanced characterization. Fiennes shuffles ineffectually through his scenes of derring-do, his eyes wide as if he were in amazement that a fall from the height of "Schindler's List" could have been so swift. And the seemingly sure-fire casting of Thurman as Emma Peel is shot to hell by a performance that stays on the same haughty note from beginning to end. Moreover, she employs a British accent that the Yeehaw Junction Shakespeare Company would have little trouble bettering. Connery comes out comparatively unscathed, if only because his appearance is so brief.
In the film's worst move, the story forces Steed and Peel into a romantic liaison that the TV series wisely avoided in favor of playful innuendo. But for all of the imposed heat, the new duo still manages to generate zero chemistry. Seemingly mortified at their participation in this fiasco, Fiennes and Thurman can hardly bear to look at each other in all the time they're on the screen. Their blatant discomfort leaves you no reason to watch, either.