Three decades later and The Avengers became yet another show that was revamped in the 1990s fad for big screen revivals of 1960s tv series, along with the likes of the The Addams Family (1991), The Beverly Hillbillies (1993), The Fugitive (1993), The Flintstones (1994), Flipper (1996), Mission: Impossible (1996), Leave It to Beaver (1997), The Saint (1997), Lost in Space (1998), Dudley Do-Right (1999), The Mod Squad (1999), My Favourite Martian (1999), Wild Wild West (1999), Charlies Angels (2000), I Spy (2002), Starsky & Hutch (2004), Thunderbirds (2004), Bewitched (2005), The Dukes of Hazzard (2005), The Honeymooners (2005), Miami Vice (2006), Transformers (2007), Get Smart (2008), Speed Racer (2008), Land of the Lost (2009), Star Trek (2009), The A-Team (2010), Yogi Bear (2010), The Smurfs (2011), Dark Shadows (2012), The Sweeney (2012), 21 Jump Street (2012), The Equalizer (2014), Jem and the Holograms (2015), The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015) and Dads Army (2016).
One could sense for a long time in advance that The Avengers big-screen project was shaping up to be a disaster in the making. First, there was the initial planned castings of Mel Gibson as John Steed and Nicole Kidman as Mrs Peel. (Is there any actor whose persona is less suited to the part of the perfectly mannered gentleman Steed than Mel Gibson? Ones personal dream casting would have been Charles Dance and Emma Thompson in the parts). And then there was the assignment of Jeremiah Chechik to the directors chair. Jeremiah Chechik made his debut with National Lampoons Christmas Vacation (1989) and has yet to make a good film. Chechiks previous genre outings consisted of Tall Tale (1995), a film about Western legends like Pecos Bill and John Bunyan that fell flat because it seemed scared of and ended up trying to be everything else except a tall tale, while Chechiks next effort Diabolique (1996) disastrously tried to remake the classic French thriller Les Diaboliques (1955) with an upbeat ending. [Intriguingly at one point, the Avengers film passed through the hands of David Fincher of Se7en (1995) and Fight Club (1999) fame, which certainly would have been interesting to see]. Chechik took the failure of The Avengers to heart and did not direct anything outside of series tv for the next fifteen years.
Even the distributors of The Avengers could see the film was going to be a disaster before it opened and conducted the (back then) almost unprecedented desperation measure of refusing critics any preview screenings on the grounds that they didnt want the film unfairly compared to the original series. (I do hate to puncture the reality these guys seem to live in but you are selling a remake you cannot revive a tv series and then not expect critics, let alone an audience, to compare it to the original). Needless to say, The Avengers was pilloried by critics and audiences alike and was considered one of the biggest disasters of its year.
Certainly, The Avengers is technically a well made film. The photography is lush and sumptuous and there is some fine model effects work and dazzling sets. The film has certainly done its homework when it comes to studying the series and copying everything from Mrs Peels costumes to outfitting Steed with his vintage Bentley and steel-capped bowler hat and Mrs Peel with her MGB. The film even gets full marks for quoting the series explanation of what happened to Mr Peel. For all that, it is a sad effort. The droll British understatement comes far too posed. The jokes about Steeds impeccable coiffure, tea drinking, macaroons and brollies, the unflappable cool in the midst of danger are set up as obvious gags. The effect is less one of droll wit than it is of affected retro-chic it is like a funny incident that loses its spontaneity in the retelling.
The casting has tried hard but ends up a complete disaster. Ralph Fiennes tries to do a droll John Steed but comes out more like a bland, colourless Oxbridge fop, while Uma Thurmans Mrs Peel is wooden and vapid, lacking in any of Diana Riggs teasing flirtatiousness. Sean Connery delivers one of the worst performances he has ever given, reduced to slavering and lusting over Uma Thurman.
The plot is so disjointed it verges on the completely incomprehensible. It seems to have been constructed out of sequences that somebody thought was cool Mrs Peel trapped in an M.C. Escher-modelled house (clearly an echo of the episode The House That Jack Built), an attack by robot insects, an incredibly daft scene where a group of conspirators meet dressed as teddybears. However, they are incidents that seem to happen without any connecting sensibility. A clone of Mrs Peel runs about for half the film without even any explanation as to what she is doing there. Even the initial assignment Steed is given has a thorough vagueness to it he is merely assigned to keep an eye on Mrs Peel and this somehow instantly becomes an investigation into Sean Connerys super-villain. It is sad that the film, for all the technical care that has been clearly lavished on it, can miss the mark so widely when it comes to the fundamentals and above all capturing the panache that made the original series so memorable.