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Review: 'The Avengers'

August 19, 1998


The problem with scouring old television series for film adaptations is that certain idioms are specific to a time. When removed from that time and placed conspicuously within another, they are not merely anachronistic but just plain awful.

The nice, naive suburbia of "Leave it to Beaver" was contemporaneous with an America impressed with its moral rectitude after the defeat of totalitarian regimes Germany and Japan.

In this time, notions of duplication began, and soon everyone was driving the same car and living in the same house and wearing the same tactful clothes.


For better or worse, a cultural revolution and a war in Vietnam came along, and the youth of the nation has in subsequent years been sarcastic and snarky, more sexually active and less concerned with soda fountains and good grades.

When Hollywood tried to place the Cleaver family on the silver screen, the result was disturbing. They could not do it - they could not leave them as they were 40 years ago, and as the Cleavers might be in the 1990s is rather beside the point.

Gone was the comfortable circuitry and innocence of Wally and Beaver, Ward and June. In their stead was obnoxious humor and satire.

A similar shift in attitude - or, in this case, a lack of shift - has hampered the adaptation of "The Avengers."

At some point in the unvaried gloss, John Steed (Ralph Fiennes) and Emma Peel (Uma Thurman) emerge from a plastic bubble, and the air quickly escapes as the plastic sheds from them to the ground. The problem with the film is that it never emerges from its bubble. It is one of those plastic globes you pick up in a novelty shop and toss back as you return to the road.

There is nothing novel about "The Avengers."

Its British humor - what we might call cheekiness - is so dated that when an old woman politely asks Steed and Peel (they're secret agents, by the way, and as such always address each other by their last names) to get down before wielding a machine gun to dispose of some dogged henchmen, not only was I impelled not to laugh, but to get up and walk out of the theater.

The syntax of the secret agent world has been so thoroughly established by James Bond films that it comes as little surprise that Sean Connery stars in "The Avengers."

He plays August De Wynter, a character so broadly defined both by the script and the actor that I was not so much afraid as worried that Sir Sean might be endangering his health; one can only partake of so much ham.

De Wynter, a genius by day, a rich, old lunatic by evening, has his calculating comrades dress in disguise as colorful bears - great for going unnoticed.

Well what do you know? A character with the name August De Wynter has an unhealthy preoccupation with the weather - and he has employed his intellect to create a machine that can effect any meteorlogical conditions imaginable.

Director Jeremiah Chechick could not have made a movie less involving had it been about the weather - oh, wait a second. I suppose credit should be given for trying to avert the standard nuclear weapons scenario, but when one aspect of small talk like the weather becomes fruit for an action spectacle, is grocery shopping now ripe subject for a Bruce Willis movie?

The special effects are as realistic as the plastic snow in the plastic globes. Everything about the movie is plastic, from the synthetic use of code names like Mother (Jim Broadbent) and Father (Fiona Shaw) for chiefs of British security, to the acting of Fiennes and Connery. These gentlemen belong in films more respectable than ones in which they get into an umbrella fight in the middle of a maelstrom.

As for Thurman, she continues to be sexy without being mysterious; her recent foray into blockbuster bang, with "Batman and Robin" and now this, betrays a fear that she may never get a chance to recapture the erotic potential she exhibited in early work like "Dangerous Liasons."

The only thing dangerous about "The Avengers" is that three terrific actors will have to list it on their resumes.

One can only hope they will learn never again to invade the sacred grounds of television past.

Jason Myers is a 1998 graduate of North Hagerstown High School.

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