Warner Bros. fantasies have always had a certain memorable flair. Dating back to films like Superman and Blade Runner, a viewer could always be guaranteed a journey into another world. The Avengers would have been the next big franchise for the 75-year old studio. The Bondian suavity and strong-willed heroine were just two elements that might have made this a rich fantasy-adventure. Too bad, then, that it has been so shoddily edited at the last minute. It should also be noted that this film had all the signs of a Thanksgiving turkey: The release date was hastily shifted from a franchise-friendly opening of late June to the cinematic garbage disposal of mid-August. So far, so bad. A poor edit of a potentially good movie and a foolish release date to boot. To guarantee doom for this summer opus, no screenings were held for critics. Note to studios: resist the temptation to hide a film from press screenings. We are going to see it, come hell or high water.
The Avengers is a glossy, tea-and-crumpets version of the original Batman mold, featuring all the elements of a top-dollar blockbuster: witty repartee between two cooler-than-cool partners, enough special-effects to put the American remake of Godzilla to shame, and a marketing campaign that revolves largely around a recognizable icon that could make the film a household name. The plot follows the exploits of secret agents John Steed (Ralph Fiennes) and Emma Peel (Uma Thurman), as they do battle with maniacal meteorologist Sir August de Wynter (Sean Connery), who wants to control the world’s weather for financial gain. Steed is an uptight gentleman who goes by the book, whereas Peel is a free spirit who believes rules are meant to be broken. They represent two sides of the British ideal. Simple enough. Or so one would have thought. Thanks to some nervous studio CEO and his edit-happy Hollywood blade, some 25 minutes of footage (mostly detailing the forbidden romance between De Wynter and Peel) has been excised out of fear that a youth-cornered market would respond poorly to a subplot about sexual obsession.
As a result, the film becomes utterly confusing. Even early on, before the first meeting between Steed and Peel, an irritating attendant is refusing Peel admittance to a gentlemen’s club because a lady’s presence would be improper. The attendant attempts to block her from finding Steed, then simply...disappears. In the original version, Peel took care of this bugger by giving him a good ol’ karate chop and tossing him down the stairs. At times, the viewer would sooner give up trying to follow the plot.
Sometimes, potentially good films are butchered in an attempt to garner youngster’s attention spans. Back in 1982, test audiences deemed Ridley Scott’s original cut of Blade Runner too muddled and dark for its own good. The result was a surprisingly bland voice-over by Harrison Ford and a tacked-on happy ending. In this case, no one could have seen that the minimal running time of 89 minutes in The Avengers is the only element that would make this appealing to children. The last half hour provides enough spectacular action sequences (including a stormy duel reminiscent of the one in The Empire Strikes Back) to reward a young viewer who might have endured the awkward dialogue (loaded with innuendos) and uncomfortable overdose of strangeness (giant teddy bears, anyone?) that ran rampant for the first sixty minutes.
At one time, the cast might have been game for this exercise in incoherance, but everyone appears to have gone through some kind of rigorous military training to make their pale expressions more evident. Fiennes seems to be the only one even remotely enjoying himself, yet still holds back from cracking a smile and seems uncomfortable in a film so much fluffier than any of his previous work. Thurman has her English accent down perfectly, yet is so dry and rigid you almost expect her to crack. Elizabeth Hurley would have been better suited for role, given her English background and Peel-esque physical appearance in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (slippery cat-suit and all). Bond fanatics have always dreamt of seeing the former (and greatest) actor to ever incarnate the role appear as a villain in the long-running series. Casting Connery as the baddie in a film version of a TV series so heavily influenced by Bond sounds like a logical step. But what he so sadly lacks in playing the role is the feeling that he actually wants to take over the world. He grimaces, shouts, and clenches his fists, but to no avail. Only once, in an over-the-top rant, does he evoke the feeling of evil at work.
The Avengers is at least a technical masterpiece. Providing the viewer with a universe of dazzling production design, imaginative visual effects and sexy costumes, one almost forgets that England no longer looks like this: Unless of course, you live there. The music (composed by Joel McNeely) proves to be one of the coolest scores ever produced, inducing every feeling so lacking in the film: excitement, tension, and a smooth sensation, provided by some nifty jazz notes and a bit of electronica.
Whatever The Avengers was in its original form has been made worse by a horrendous hack job that leaves us with a movie that could have been fantastic. Even the original pre-credits sequence, a spectacular action sequence involving the “evil” Emma Peel’s raid on a top-secret lab, would have at least put the movie on the right track. One can only hope for an improvement with a restored cut. Until then, this film will most likely attain cult status before it finds its way to video. Which I'm sure will be soon.