Eeeeewwww! Steed and Mrs. Peel kiss!
That alone tells you that the big-screen version of The Avengers violates the spirit of the beloved '60s British TV series on which it is based. As the small screen's John Steed and Mrs. Emma Peel, Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg did a delicious pas de deux in which cocked eyebrows and plummy inflections hinted at the possibility of carnal delights between the two secret agents, but never--no, never!--did their lips lock. And that's exactly what made their relationship--in Swinging London's heyday--so damned sexy.
What made The Avengers even more enjoyable was that the show's whole ethos was deliberately cockeyed. Once, to get Mrs. Peel back to her flat at the end of an episode, the director merely had Rigg kick down a flimsy set wall and--viola!--there were Emma's digs. That was postmodern narrative, circa 1966.
That what-the-hell whimsy is totally missing from 1998's The Avengers, largely because Ralph Fiennes as Steed and Uma Thurman as Mrs. Peel don't have a 10th of the rapport Macnee and Rigg enjoyed. Worse, Fiennes brings a misbegotten intensity to the bowler-hatted, brolly-bearing Steed. Macnee, who has a cameo as an invisible (!) secret operative, was never the actor Fiennes is, but he was jaunty, and carelessly charismatic. Fiennes is about as jaunty here as he was in The English Patient. Thurman is slightly more a-Peeling, and her legs, which appear to be about five feet long, look spectacular in a cat suit, but she and Fiennes talk past each other through much of the film.
The premise, at least, is in keeping with the series' over-the-top plot lines. A crazed scientist, Sir August De Wynter (a severely underused Sean Connery), has developed a way to control the weather, which will be unremittingly nasty unless the United Kingdom gives him 10 percent of its gross national product annually. Steed and Peel are supposed to foil him, overcoming treachery within their own super-secret organization, the Ministry, to do so. Plot points occur at random, from mechanized bees with built-in machine guns threatening Steed and Peel to a surrealistic scene in which Sir August and his henchmen gather for a meeting while wearing teddy-bear costumes. It all eventually leads to hand-to-hand combat between Connery and Fiennes, laughable for the physical disparity between the two.
There is one good thing about The Avengers: Great Brit actors Jim Broadbent, Fiona Shaw, Eileen Atkins, and John Wood got supporting roles and, one assumes, a good chunk of Warner Bros.' money. For that alone, cheers.