08 May 2012

BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY: VENGEANCE IS THEIRS

This review has been updated, at the bottom

A Blockbuster History special review, in honor of the kind of mind-blowing box office take that makes the word "Blockbuster" seem woefully insufficient. We all have seen the joke, I am sure, that The Avengers is not the first film in recent memory with that title, but I would have to be the idiot who actually went and watched the other one.

In the 1960s, there was a British television program called The Avengers. We are not here to discuss it, so I will not dwell long on its complicated history; let it suffice to say that in the course of six series, it clocked five distinct cast changes, starting as the story of a medical doctor and an intelligence agent avenging the death of the doctor's fiancée (and thus the title, otherwise rendered totally inexplicable), and ending up as the same agent's rotating collection of hot female partners fighting mildly fantastic crime. It was not a great show; I will not even claim, citing ignorance, that four of the six series were even any fun. But from 1965 to 1968, The Avengers was the stuff of legend, the years that Patrick Macnee's John Steed was joined by Diana Rigg's Mrs Emma Peel: a pleasant, stuffy middle-aged man and a gorgeous woman in a catsuit, representing in their pulpy, frivolous way one of the most compelling depictions of the tension between solid, celibate old Britain and the ebullient garishness of mid-'60s youth culture ever filmed in any medium: even viewed in later years, it is playful, it is sexy, it is thrilling as hell if you are eleven and it is is a gratifyingly breezy way to get a quick spy adventure fix if you are older, and it is an irreplaceable time capsule from one of the most distinctive moments in all the annals of pop culture. Also, Diana Rigg in a catsuit. I cannot stress that enough.

The non-Rigg years have their defenders, in particular Honor Blackman's stint as the first of Steeds's female partners, and there was even an abortive attempt to bring back the concept in a pointedly Rigg-free manner with 1976's The New Avengers, but for the most part, when somebody says "I loved the Avengers", they are referring the Steed-Peel incarnation. And this is because that incarnation was freaking fantastic: the leads' chemistry, their personality conflicts, their perfectly timed awareness of how goofy their adventures were (and it is never entirely clear if the actors or the characters are not taking themselves seriously), all add up to absolutely marvelous TV - not art, but entertainment of the highest order. And that should be enough for you to go on for the moment.

* * * * *

My younger readers may not believe this, but there was a time when the vast majority of major releases were not sequels, reboots, remakes, or upgrades of preexisting properties. Nowadays, when "brand name" is such a key element of what films get made and for how much money that even the most casual moviegoer can discuss marketing conceits like a Variety reporter, the surprising thing is not when an old television program that more people know by name (if that) than have seen it is polished off and turned into a new movie, it's that there are still old television shows that haven't been remade.* But this didn't used to be the case at all: within living memory, TV-to-movie adaptations were very rare indeed, and most of them had Star Trek in the title - and for that matter, TV remakes, with a brand-new cast, were virtually unheard of (the earliest example I know is 1995's satirical The Brady Bunch Movie) (but I was wrong, see comments).

While the first Mission: Impossible is probably the reason that this seemed like a good idea in general, I suspect that we can look rather to three movies at the end of the 1990s as being primarily responsible for letting this particular genie out of the bottle, all of them impeccable examples of a property that lots of people have somewhat vaguely heard of and virtually no-one in the target audience has seen: going in reverse order, summer 1999 saw the magnificently costly flop Wild Wild West, spring of that year saw the truly spurious The Mod Squad, and August, 1998, bore witness to The Avengers, and now at last I have reached the point of this post.

Above and beyond the fact that they are all remakes of slightly obscure 1960s series that had a warm reputation among exactly those people least likely to willingly entertain the thought of such a remake, the three films share two very important traits in common: first, is that they are excruciatingly, almost indescribably bad. And actually, there's not a second thing, but they're just so fucking bad that I figured I would count it twice. And that is the last I will speak of Wild Wild West or The Mod Squad, for there is no earthly reason that anyone could have to talk about them, and instead I will focus, laser-like, on The Avengers, even though there is also no earthly reason to talk about that, either, except that I had a "cute" idea based solely on the film's title, and so finally watched the film after 14 years of assiduously avoiding it, and I would really hate for that singularly unpleasant 89 minutes of my life to have been a complete waste without even a review to show for it. Am I stalling? I am. Can I stall more? Probably. Hey, did I mention Diana Rigg's puberty-inducing catsuit? Well, I will do it again.

The Avengers '98 is a horrifyingly bad movie by any measure; but it feels like the graphic proof of a vicious God in comparison to the television show. Gone is the prancing interplay and super-casual sexual sizzle between Macnee and Rigg, replaced by stiff, itchy, shrill barbs tossed back and forth by Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman, the latter of whom, you may know, is not English. And if you didn't know it, boy oh boy oh boy, would you ever be able to figure it out after listening to her pretending to be for an entire feature-length film.

There are just so many sins in The Avengers, but the saddest of them is that Fiennes and Thurman are wildly unlikable as two characters whose bright, flirty interplay is the whole entire point of the franchise. The Razzies are no more a reliable indicator than the Oscars, but the pair was nominated for Worst Couple, in addition to individual acting mentions (out of nine nominations overall); and that frankly seems about right.There are films in which a couple bickers and fights and trades insults, and you can tell, due to the spark between the actors, that they are hot for each other, and it is delightful. There are also films in which a couple bickers etc. and because the actors don't click, it seems like they really just hate each other, and its dreary. But in The Avengers, we find something that I didn't ever know existed: a film in which a couple banters and winks and laughs at each other's jokes and all but announce out loud how much they look forward to screwing, in which the two actors are so weirdly confrontational in doing so, Thurman especially, that they don't seem like potential lovers, or even flirty co-workers as much as dueling assassins forced to pretend to a kind of affection and friendship they do not feel in the slightest degree.

And then there is the plot. The Avengers, the show, beat Dr. No by a full year, but the height of its popularity was well into the English-speaking world's James Bond infatuation, and the slight sci-fi tinge to some of the show's plots can be seen as a kind of feather-light Bondian touch. The Avengers '98 is functionally a James Bond movie. A lousy one. The worst one. But what The Avengers did not have was supervillains with comic book plans for world domination, and what this film has is Sean Connery (See? SEE?) as the mad Sir August de Wynter - not giving him a treacherous girl henchman named April Showers must have taken every last molecule of writer Don MacPherson's self-control - who has used the climatology research that Mrs Dr Peel was working on (she's not even a spy in this movie, just a physicist that Steed teems up with, because sure, fine, whatever) to create a death machine that will destroy the planet with storms unless he is paid a king's ransom.

This was Warner Bros.'s second year in a row with an Uma Thurman movie in which a supervillain tried to rule the planet with weather, and it says a whole lot about how much The Avengers ruins everything that I actually can't decide if it's better or worse than Batman & Robin. Thurman herself is better here, but given that her Poison Ivy in B&R is one of the worst performances of the 1990s, she'd almost have to be.

Anyway, the plot is ridiculous, but that's not inherently a problem: plenty of great spy movies have ridiculous plots. That everything else around the plot is also ridiculous is a problem, like the fact that when de Wynter is in his Board Room of Evil, he and all of his evil colleagues are dressed up in huge, brightly colored teddy bear costumes. Here and elsewhere, you can tell from Connery's rather manic line readings and glazed expression that he flat-out gave up on this movie, and that is entirely his right - that nobody else in the cast is as visibly angry at what they have to do as Connery is is frankly a bit shocking. But still, this is the same Sean Connery who was able to summon up enough self-respect as an actor to turn in at least a functional performance in even as toxic a movie as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. That he checked out of The Avengers so completely is rather telling. Meanwhile, he seems positively sensible when stacked next to a bizarrely over-qualified cast including Jim Broadbent, Eileen Atkins, Fiona Shaw, Eddie Izzard, and a cameoing Patrick Macnee, all of whom indulge to some degree in an attempt to actually play their characters; one of the fun games you can play with the movie is trying to figure out which scenes they shot after realising what a shitpile the film was going to be, when they're performance suddenly becomes sweaty and dead-eyed.

What sums the film up, I think, is not the strange weather plot, which is rendered virtually incomprehensible thanks to a last minute edit that removed nearly a half-hour of footage - ordinarily I object to such vandalism, but it has the merit of making The Avengers shorter, and that is an absolute good - nor the demented manhandling of the Steed-Peel relationship, nor the godawful faux-Shirley Bassey song about storms over the end credits, nor the confusing action sequences in which director Jeremiah Chechik proved that light family comedies and quirky romances are not good practice for effects-driven thrillers (though the CGI itself is sort of good, in that late-'90s "we only have enough time and money for a couple of big scenes, so make 'em count" way), but the bees. The mechanical flying bees the size of go-karts that for no obvious reason chase Steed and Mrs Peel out of de Wynter's secret lair. What the fuck with the bees? Because, bees are famously sensitive to changes in the weather and that is why they sometimes die out mysteriously? I don't even know if that was a new story yet in 1998. But, I mean, big damn metal bees, a whole squadron of them. Compared to that, even James Bond's notorious invisible car is damn near sane.

Addendum: How did I manage to forget the most important part? One of the most galling and hateful things about the whole movie is its theme park idea of England, doubly obnoxious in light of how essentially British the original show was, in its humor, its performance style, its narrative sensibility, and its cultural commentary. The 1998 movie was made, apparently, by people who weren't even aware that there was a real-world United Kingdom that exists outside of wacky comedies, and everything is ratcheted up to such twee extremes that I'd assume it was a parody if anything else in the whole movie seemed to be even marginally intelligent. In this film, for example, there are at least three separate moments where the plot is literally stopped in place so that the characters can enjoy their afternoon tea - I say "at least", because truth be told, there was a stretch of time where I realised that I hadn't been paying attention, and I might have missed one. Not, by the way, "I feel asleep", or "I was doing something with the TV on in the background": while staring at the screen and doing absolutely nothing else, I hit a wall where I simply stopped processing the movie for a few minutes, probably because my brain was trying to murder itself. And that, I'd wager, is the best measure of just how wretched the movie is.

12 comments:

Hallvarður Jón Guðmundsson said...

I actually own this movie on VHS. I finally decided to watch it when I was bedridden with cold, which only made matters worse.
I've only seen one episode of the old Avengers-series, one where they are up against a group of killer clowns, it was kinda trippy...

franklinshepard said...

Ugh, this movie. But Tim, have you forgotten 1993's Beverly Hillbillies so quickly? Or 1994's Car 54, Where Are You? 1987's Dragnet was probably the first TV remake.

Rick said...

To prepare for 2012's The Avengers, I watched 1998's The Avengers. When Sean Connery talked about "not getting wet", I burst out laughing so hard I kept rewinding and rewinding just to keep laughing. It hurt so good to laugh at both the line and his delivery.

It is true: it is a quasi-Bond film (having May Day herself from A View to A Kill, MISS Grace Jones, sing the closing song, does not help matters).

You should mention that while MacNee did make a cameo, at least he had the sense/fortune to make his character invisible.

Tim said...

Hallvarður- I think I know the one you're talking about. It's one of the only non-Rigg ones I've seen, and it's definitely a bit loopier than the series norm.

Franklin- Oh, man, you win all the points. I find it interesting that the early examples were all comedies, and then after M:I there were a lot of action shows.

Rick- Did not realise at all that was Grace Jones, and now I feel bad for calling her a Shirley Bassey knock-off. And indeed, I should have pointed that out about Macnee, but then I would have to type "invisible secret agent", and I couldn't bear doing that.

Rebecca said...

I either had the exact same experience as you, or I actually fell asleep, because I don't remember big damn metal bees.

Colin said...

A feature-length remake of "The Golden Girls" must be made before Betty White dies if only so we can see her promoted to the Estelle Getty role.

jjjonatron said...

Oh god what Colin said

jjjonatron said...

Also I have a really indefensible appreciation for Wild Wild West. I think it's funny :C A steampunk action flick is fine by me...

StephenM said...

Another TV remake was The Twilight Zone, which considering the talent involved may have had something to do with setting off the trend.

There were also The Flintstones movies in the 90s, but maybe we just shouldn't mention those.

Tim said...

The internet has been out all day at the Brayton home, so I'm lucky even to get this comment published, but I didn't want Colin's observation to go by without a hearty "YES! EXACTLY!"

javi75 said...

I actually watched this on movie theaters when new. I guesss I'm the only person in the world who thinks the teddy bear costume thing (and the chase that ensues) is funny. I thought the movie was sort of a parody of Bond movies. But yeah, obviously it's pretty terrible, although almost in a fascinating way.

Robert Mielke said...

I remember PAYING to see this movie in the theater, and DAMN was that a mistake. However, in hindsight, I can see what the appeal was behind it.

Ralph Fiennes was the new big name on the scene thanks to "Schindler's List", "Quiz Show", and "The English Patient", having earned two Oscar nominations for two of those films (and in addition to those movies, I still consider "Strange Days" to be the most intelligent sci-fi mystery thriller that nobody went to go see in 1995). Sean Connery was fresh off an action-movie resurgence thanks to 1996's "The Rock". And in a similar vein from the 60's roots of this film's television origins, the James Bond franchise had just been revitalized thanks to the casting of Pierce Brosnan in the role, with two movies under his belt there. The trailers made it look good, but in the dumbest move I think I've ever made before buying a ticket... I failed to read any critic reviews.

Oops!!!

Turns out that a LOT of the footage used in the film's trailer ended up on the cutting room floor and I felt totally deceived by false advertising. Got all the way into the scene where Sean is speechifying to the consortium of evil teddy bears and my friend had had enough and walked out, telling me give him a call and let him know how much worse the movie could possibly have gotten (words failed me at that point and I was unable to do so). To this day, I can't believe I stuck it out to the very end, hoping - stupidly it turned out - that it was bound to improve SOMEWHERE down the line, only to be horribly disappointed when it didn't.

And yet...

Now knowing the troubled history behind this movie and the chopping ("editing" is too kind a word) that was done to it to take a full 25% out, I have to believe that to get the "name" actors to sign their names to contracts to participate, there MUST have been a better movie written down in the screenplay SOMEWHERE, and I find myself occasionally getting caught up in it whenever I see it on one of the cable channels, still hoping that it's not the movie that I remember it to be. Too bad for that. It still is, and because of how badly it performed in its theatrical release and subsequent home video rentals and sales, Warner Bros. will NEVER restore the chunks that were removed so we can see the film it SHOULD have been.

And I still have my doubts as to whether that would be a good thing or not, and instead of improving a terrible movie, it might be just MORE of a bad thing.