This big screen version of The Avengers starts surprisingly – with dark, turbulent music and a credit sequence with tremendous design sense.
But, come the first shot of the dapper Steed (Ralph Fiennes) strolling down a pleasant-looking street that hides life-threatening dangers of many sorts, the old, musical theme from the television series strikes up – and we are on familiar ground.
Actually, that design sense never leaves the movie. The Avengers is a visual and architectural feast, but its more mundane thriller content is going to disappoint many people.
There's not much to the plot – the extravagant villain of the piece is Sir August De Winter (Sean Connery), a power-mad, Evil Genius who holds the world to ransom by controlling its weather. To spice things up a little, he clones himself an evil, leather-clad twin of Emma Peel (Uma Thurman).
Weather and tea are the two obsessions of this film. The often witty humour in Don Macpherson's script comes from the way it juxtaposes lethal and melodramatic events with the British penchant for the routine and the banal. No situation is so dire that it cannot provide a pause for refreshment and small talk.
Since The Avengers has arrived with an awful critical rap from overseas, many of its virtues are likely to be overlooked. Director Jeremiah Chechik (Diabolique ) struggles with the monotony of the situations and jokes, but he gives a lot of energy and style to this project.
His grasp of a certain pop surrealism – as in a wonderful scene showing Steed in a red telephone booth in the middle of nowhere, almost blown away by a growing monsoon – is refreshing.
The wacky, ultra-camp humour – all the bad guys are dressed in brightly coloured, oversized bear costumes – is occasionally overplayed. But, for the most part, The Avengers resembles a lively mix of Modesty Blaise (1966) with Dark City (1998).
As in those movies, the look registers more powerfully than either the story or characters. But what a look: London is rendered as a place of fantastic, pristine aristocracy, completely depopulated except for a dozen or so scuttling secret agents.
The central actors are very enjoyable to watch. The script tries hard for a frisson between Steed and Emma and some vague drama involving trust and suspicion, Hitchcock-style, but all it really allows the actors are opportunities for action, poise and fun. That is almost enough: a splendid moment in which Steed helps Emma put on her magnificent boots after yet another scrape ("it's too tight" – "so push") is alone worth the price of admission.
Rabid fans of the television show will probably have too many impossible-to-satisfy expectations of this film. The problems of blowing a TV-style narrative up to cinema proportions have still only been solved by De Palma's Mission: Impossible (1996).
But don't be completely discouraged by the adverse reactions: it is still a terrific spectacle, best caught in theatres rather than on a small screen. The Avengers' charms may be slight and fleeting, but they are charms nonetheless.
MORE Chechik: Benny & Joon
© Adrian Martin November 1998