It's never a good sign when a film's producers are still busy reediting their project in the days prior to its release, and it's an even deadlier sign when they decide to skip the standard critics' screening and send the "finished" project straight to the multiplex. That's the sort of dubious fanfare accompanying the arrival of The Avengers, Jeremiah Chechik's attempt to modernize the 1960s British TV spy show that helped make made Patrick MacNee, Diana Rigg and the zipper-front leather jumpsuit famous. And, in fact, this '90s redux has scarcely a whiff of the stylish fun that made its precursor a cult favorite. There's plenty of droll banter, but it can't mask the utter lack of chemistry between the Ministry's number-one spy, the impeccable John Steed (Ralph Fiennes), and his unwilling recruit, the brash and unpredictable Dr. Emma Peel (Uma Thurman). Blame Fiennes, who's totally miscast here. Sure, Steed's supposed to be something of a stiff, but there's also supposed to be a twinkle in his eye as he whaps the bad guys with his umbrella. As usual, Fiennes is an automaton, a living starched shirt. Where he ought to be smiling as he chides a leather-clad goon for mussing his trademark bowler, he's scowling--c'mon, Ralph, lighten up. Unfortunately, the guy who could teach Fiennes a thing or two about making wry fly is stuck playing the bad guy. Sean Connery, the original secret agent man, munches some scenery as Sir August De Wynter, a meteorologically mad Scotsman who'd like nothing more than to bury our heroes (and all of London) with blizzards, tornadoes and lightning bolts generated by his nifty weather-targeting system. Now that's a plot that would be fun to watch, but Connery's given precious little screen time; instead, dippy subplots involving clones and double-dealing within the Ministry cloud the landscape. Chechik has come through with offbeat stuff in the face of difficult odds before (Benny and Joon), and he's also botched projects badly (Diabolique). Here, he sprinkles quirks (both intentional and otherwise) almost wantonly--bad guys show up dressed as teddy bears, De Wynter keens about in full Scottish regalia, and a bridge destroyed by a tornado in one scene reappears untouched a few scenes later. It's like a sloppily edited scrapbook ode to the '60s original, pasted together with still-wet Krazy Glue. The tempest-tossed finale delivers on some of the film's initial promise, but it's way too little, too late.
More than anything else, this "modern" version of The Avengers feels outdated and pointless. The TV show enjoyed its cult status more for the stylish uppercuts it struck for feminism than for anything resembling originality. In the late '60s, the sight of a leather-clad Diana Rigg kicking bad-guy butt knocked both the fashion world and the dominant patriarchy on their ass. In 1998, Uma Thurman's impersonation feels stale and not even terribly sexy. Apparently, Ms. Peel, you're no longer needed.