Rated PG-13 - Running time: 1:31 - Released 8/14/98

The latest new movie to have its roots in the small screen is Jeremiah S. Chechik's The Avengers, based on the 1960s British TV show. Though this film is basically just a variation on the James Bond theme, the inclusion of a two-person team, one man and one woman, succeeds far better in my opinion. Its two stars, Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman, rise to the occasion and create an amusingly proper version of the high-impact spy story, while generating just enough sexual tension to keep us interested. Also included are many dazzling special effects and lots of cool spy devices, emulating (or copying, depending upon your viewpoint) the Batman series. And, like Batman, it is clear this vehicle will bring us many sequels in the future.

John Steed (Fiennes) is a high-powered London secret agent, always prepared for action. This is proved by an opening sequence in which he walks down the street and everyone he encounters tries to kill him, including the old lady with the baby carriage. We soon learn that he is merely being tested, and he passes with flying colors. Armed only with his smart derby and his umbrella/sword, he seems ready for anything. Anything, that is, except Dr. Emma Peel.

Mrs. Peel (Thurman) is a knockout, of course. But she is also director of a major corporation, she is fantastically intelligent, and she can match Steed's fencing ability stroke for stroke, as he soon finds out. When the two meet, a sense of mutual distrust sparks their relationship. They are brought together to solve a crime involving Mrs. Peel's invention, a "weather shield" designed to protect the United Kingdom from natural disasters. It seems the shield, which had been operating flawlessly, has been sabotaged. But the puzzling thing is that according to the surveillance tapes, the saboteur appears to be none other than Mrs. Peel herself.

After a little investigation by Steed's superiors, code-named "Mother" (Jim Broadbent) and "Father" (Fiona Shaw), the suspicion arises that the one behind the destruction of the weather shield is diabolical madman Sir August de Wynter (Sean Connery). Steed and Peel are assigned to make a visit to his extensive property to ascertain more information. In so doing, they discover that Wynter has in his employ another Mrs. Peel (either a clone or a robot; we're not quite sure), and she's bad to the bone. Also they find that the madman has invented a machine with which he can control the weather, and intends to take over the world by doing so. Let's just say if his demands are not met, it's going to get rather chilly around here. So now our duo must stop Wynter (to coin a phrase), and Steed must differentiate between Mrs. Peel his partner and Mrs. Peel who's trying to kill him. And be finished in time for tea.

This film may be criticized for not living up to the TV series, but I have only the faintest memories of the show, so I must judge it simply on its own merits. And I have to say that its lead actors are the only element that makes it any different from any other action film. The terribly proper-ness of Steed and Peel are the central theme, and Thurman and Fiennes pull this off nicely. There are a lot of visual treats, including an ingenious scene where Emma is trying to escape from a staircase like the kind in an Escher painting, and a cameo by Patrick Macnee (the original Steed) as an invisible man. But Don MacPherson's script is just another Bond clone, especially villain-wise. Connery is suitably over-the-top, but it's nothing new. ***½

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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