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Stormy Weather

[whitespace] The Avengers
Uma with a Viewer: Uma Thurman and Ralph Fiennes in 'The Avengers.'

Even Uma Thurman in a cat suit can't save 'The Avengers'

By Richard von Busack

A REAL ODDITY, The Avengers. It's the mangled result of what's said to be a fine script. Yet The Avengers is occasionally as laudably peculiar as some of the more extreme Bond takeoffs of the '60s. Alienation was never far from the shiny surfaces of extreme spy movies like Modesty Blaise (1966), Casino Royale and Billion Dollar Brain (both 1967). These exotic films were described as spoofs, because no one knew how else to call them. Many of the directors who were hired on to do fake-007 movies in the '60s were fascinated with Godard and Antonioni. Their supposedly dumb spy parodies were menacing, illogical pop art.

By contrast, TV's The Avengers was a popular, light spy series. The lead was a secret agent who looked like a City of London banker. His name was John Steed. Played by Patrick Macnee, Steed was the Magritte spy, a prim, bowler-hatted figure framed with gigantic props and peculiar villains. The Avengers cross-pollinated the Bond films, donating to the series Honor Blackman and Diana Rigg. Though Rigg was affecting as James Bond's ill-fated wife, Tracy, in 1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service, she'll always be remembered as the cat-suited judo expert Mrs. Emma Peel.

Rigg provided the sex appeal, and the twinkling Macnee was an appealing wry comedian. The balance of the two was reflected in Laurie Johnson's irresistible theme song: fussy harpsichord for Steed and lush strings for Peel. At least the theme song is in this film version. The plot is much like a long episode of the show. The Avengers are called out to battle a weather-controlling extortionist named Sir August de Wynter, played by Sean Connery. But this film adaptation of a warm, droll show is very much like the colder, sick-soul-of-Europe-spy pastiches that perplexed critics and audiences alike back in the '60s.

Ralph Fiennes makes a clenched Steed, looking like a mildly psychotic schoolboy. Obviously, Uma Thurman's Peel is a glad sight in that cat suit, but her malaise-coated archness doesn't melt. She's giving an imitation of Rigg's suavity. Thurman does have one promising scene, however. She is surprised by Sir August as she investigates the villain's garden hothouse. For a moment, as Connery flirts, he defies the years; for a moment, there's nothing eerie about the idea of the 70-year-old man and the 30-year-old woman together. Then, of course, the spell breaks. Connery starts buttering Thurman up with sub-Roger Moore double entendres. Hearing them, I became conscious of Connery's pate, capped with that same sort of fluffy white artificial hair that always made Sinatra look like he'd scalped the Easter Bunny. The other memorable scene features the nighttime crash of a hot-air balloon in Trafalgar Square during a monster snowstorm engineered by Sir August. Steed rescues Peel, bruised and wet-haired from a snowdrift, and takes her away from the deserted square. The lonely image sums up the mood of the film. The insultingly bad English gentry jokes, the 10-cent quips and even the climactic fight scenes--all can't warm the chill out of the theater.

The Avengers (PG-13; 91 min.), directed by Jeremiah S. Chechik, written by Sydney Newman and Don MacPherson, photographed by Roger Pratt and starring Uma Thurman, Ralph Fiennes and Sean Connery.

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From the August 20-26, 1998 issue of Metro.

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