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Big-screen version of The Avengers contains little to recommend it.

By Joe Leydon

AUGUST 31, 1998:  It is said, mostly by Hollywood insiders, that nobody ever sets out to make a bad movie. When one is confronted with an unmitigated disaster on the order of The Avengers, however, one can't help thinking that maybe it's time to retire that axiom. Charmless, mirthless and stunningly ill-conceived, this big-screen version of the elegantly spoofy '60s television show should join Hudson Hawk and Howard the Duck as a yardstick by which all future Hollywood debacles will be measured.

Working from a flat screenplay by Don Macpherson, director Jeremiah Chechik strives mightily to emulate the breezy sophistication of the cult-fave tv classic. To his credit, Chechik does get at least one thing right: the stark, stylized look of the conspicuously under-populated street scenes. (The original Avengers made a virtue out of necessity while filming on a cramped budget.) Unfortunately, he gets just about everything else, including the casting, wrong.

Ralph Fiennes replaces Patrick Macnee as John Steed, the well-bred and impeccably tailored British superspy, while Uma Thurman has the even more challenging task of filling in for Diana Rigg as Emma Peel, the leather-suited dilettante who speaks archly and carries a swift kick. It helps very little that Fiennes moves like a prissy flamingo, and sounds like a smug twit. It helps even less that, when he's supposed to be suave and self-assured, Fiennes is visibly uncomfortable in his Saville Row wardrobe. Thurman comes across as snippy and petulant rather than smart and mischievous, but at least she brings a bit of energy to her performance. She also looks great in a leather catsuit.

In this revised version of the Avenger mythos, Mrs. Peel - as she known to almost everyone, including Steed - is a doctor of meteorological science. But she's also a formidable fencer and martial artist, which makes her a worthy ally for Steed, the very best operative of a British secret agency known as The Ministry.

The plot, which is at once simple-minded and hopelessly muddled, calls for Steed and Mrs. Peel to join forces against the maniacal Sir August De Wynter, a former Ministry official who has concocted a device to control the world's weather. Sean Connery shares above-the-title billing with Fiennes and Thurman, but really doesn't have much to do. Indeed, he spends most of his time grinning or grimacing in immense close-up, presumably while staring at something off-camera. Or, more likely, while thinking of the huge paycheck he received for what amounts to an extended cameo.

Even with an extended closing-credits crawl at the end, The Avengers clocks in at just under 90 minutes. Unfortunately, it seems twice as long. Instead of trying for the brisk jauntiness that made the tv series so much fun, Chechik inexplicably allows his movie to dawdle interminably. There is a weirdly dreamy quality to many scenes in which Fiennes and Thurman simply lounge about and murmur single entendres to each other. Quite often, the actors behave like participants in some artsy and overproduced commercial for expensive perfume. It's worth noting, by the way, that Patrick Macnee - yes, the original John Steed himself - makes a brief appearance in The Avengers. Or, to be more precise, he makes a brief non-appearance, as an invisible agent who runs the Ministry archives. You can hear his voice, but Macnee saves himself from the embarrassment of actually being seen in the movie. Clever. Fans of the '60s tv series will be bitterly disappointed. And the uninitiated - that is, folks who know The Avengers only as the title of a comic book featuring Captain America - will wonder why anyone bothered to manufacture such a folly.

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