Joe’s Blog

Archive for June, 2008

The Avengers (1998)

June 27, 2008 1:56 am

The Avengers [1998]This week should be a celebration. This week should have seen the 10th anniversary DVD release of one of the best loved, and most thrilling action adventure movies of recent times. In this perfect world, we’d be onto the third or fourth adventure for a crime fighting duo who do everything in style, and the series would be pushing Bond and Bourne for the title of biggest spy adventure franchise.

We don’t live in that world though. We live in the world where a movie adaptation of one of the best loved TV series of all time was handed over to a director with no experience of big budget summer movies, an enthusiastic producer shackled by the needs of the studio to demographically tailor a unique movie and the whims of test screenings.

Welcome to the world of The Avengers

On its release in August 1998 The Avengers died a painful, but thankfully swift death. It was suppoosed to be Warner Bros. BIG summer movie, released in the middle of June. But following disastrous previews, the film was yanked back to the summer graveyard of late August, shorn of almost an hour (losing plot points, scenes, characters and any narrative coherence), and generally abandoned by the studio. Already stung by negative reports pre-release, Warners decided to ditch the film into cinemas without any previews.

What emerged was an interesting, but ultimately flawed attempt, to capture a fascinating piece of TV history: 60s style shot through with state of the art effects.

Ask people now about The Avengers and they’ll probably screw their faces up and say “it was crap”, “a travesty” or more likely “I never bothered to watch it”. Which is perhaps telling.

It lingers in the depths of imdb’s rankings (currently 3.4) but so few people have seen it in comparison to its big budget peers that it’s difficult to judge its worth. Now I know what you’re thinking “If so few people went to see it, then it must be rubbish” to which I have two words: Shawshank Redemption. That perennial ‘best film of all time’ contender took a mere $700,000 on it’s opening weekend, compared to The Avengers $10M, and barely scraped together it’s budget on it’s cinema run. So that argument is cobblers and I’ll here no more about it.

 Saying that, The Avengers is no ‘lost’ classic in the realm of Shawshank or The Thing. Films like this were criminally ignored on their initial release and later found a more appreciative audience. The Avengers is NOT like that.

Assessing The Avengers merits is difficult in its current form, since it’s clearly not the film that was intended to be released. In his excellent book, Blockbuster, Tom Shone talks at length about the tortuous process of bringing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s notorious flop Last Action Hero to the screen. He concludes by saying that the film didn’t need re-shoots, test screenings or market research, “it needed finishing“. The same is true of The Avengers.

The whole debacle warrants a study of its own, since it is indicative of all that’s wrong with Hollywood. Warners had a product, or a brand which they knew they could exploit. Rumours of an Avengers film had abounded for years. Names like Mel Gibson, Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant had been bandied around as potential stars. People, allegedly, wanted to see the film. The fans, of which there are millions, were not so keen. The Avengers is held in high regard of a kind probably only matched by that other iconic 60s series, The Prisoner.

So what Warners realised they had to do was make a movie which would have broad appeal, but also placate the fans baying for blood. It was at this point that Warners should have taken a look at one of the Avengers’ brothers in arms, the Bond series. Whilst the series had begun with clever, respectful adaptations of Flemings novels, it had quickly established an identity of its own, far removed from the source. Attempts to meld the two (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Licence to Kill) were met with critical aclaim but box office disaster (of course this was completely changed with the triumphant Casino Royale in 2006, but the movie landscape in 1998 was very different). Another good example is the disasterous attempt to reinvent Doctor Who for an American audience in 1996.

According to various internet sources, the movie that director Jeremiah Chechick delivered is actually a fairly good attempt at capturing this mythical combination of wildly different audiences. The problem was Warners decided to ‘test’ the film.

Test screenings are usually held for lowest common denominator audiences, since they make up the bulk of a film’s box office potential. Unfortunately, they are also the ones least likely to accept anything new, original or remotely different to what they’ve seen before.

As a result The Avengers became another generic action movie, where its intrinsic qualities (Britishness, style) became quirks. Remember the scene in Last Action Hero where the police department is pairing off its cops into wacky ‘buddy movie’ combinations? (You probably don’t since no one saw that misunderstyood film either.) Well, I suspect that’s how the suits viewed The Avengers.

As a huge fan of the TV series I’m suppossed to loathe the film, and I don’t. I feel sorry for it. There is potential there that is either squandered or misused.

For a start, Thurman is horribly miscast. I know they have to cast an American in one of the main roles, but surely not as Steed or Peel. Surely the villain would have been more appropriate asan American? Wouldn’t that have been more fitting for the piece? Thurman’s casting probably damaged the film even more as a result of her appearance in the dog of all dogs, Batman and Robin, the previous summer.

Ralph Fiennes seems an excellent choice on paper, but appears oddly out of place. For a start, I don’t think he’s got the right build for Steed. Yes, Steed is a debonair character, but he’s also imposing. Fiennes is not in anyway imposing.

Sean Connery, as the villain August DeWinter, is clearly thinking only of the paycheck, but has fun with his rare villainous role. Jim Broadbent is, as always, excellent as Mother. And the casting of Eddie Izzard and Shaun Ryder as henchmen is inspired, if only they’d given them (Izzard in particular) more to do.

One thing is certain though, Chechick was NOT the right man for the job. Much was made at the time of the enthsiasm he and producer Jerry Weintraub had for the original series. That’s all well and good, but for the movie you need a director who is comfortable with action and who’s idea of quirky isn’t ripping off old Charlie Chaplin skits.

Ideally the director should have been British. I don’t know who was approached, or who expressed an interest in it, but I can’t help feeling someone like Mike Newell or Mike Figgis might have been a good bet. If warners insisted on an American (which they probably did), Barry Sonnenfeld (Men In Black) would have been ideal.

The aftermath was not pretty. The critics mauled it. I recently read some of the user comments on imdb, and one person said ‘if you think the reaction here (USA) was bad, you should have seen how it was treated in Britain’. You wouldn’t wish the reaction on your worst enemy.

On opening day, the news was full of it. Normally if the mainstream media pick up on your film its a godsend. In the case of The Avengers, it was the final nail in the coffin full of bad publicity. Publicity, it should be added, of a film NO ONE had seen. It really was quite extraordinary. I remember Channel Four News reporting on it, interviewing people coming out of a West End screening. Obviously the three people they spoke to all hated it. They concluded their report by criticising the fact that Izzard only had one line (nay, one word). The press mocked the Independent newspaper for running a promotional tie-in, with the offer of free tickets to ‘judge for yourself’.

I myself went to the first showing at my local cinema, where I sat with just 3 other people, one of whom left about halfway through.

As I said right at the top, the whole thing is near forgotten now. The film is condemned to saturday afternoon screenings on Channel Five, the bargain bin in supermarkets and perrenial bad movie lists.

What it deserves is a chance. There are currently several online petitions to get the director’s cut released as a proper 10th anniversary DVD set. I suspect this is unlikely, as probably no one involved wants to talk about the movie again.

Chechik lost himself for a few years, returning to make a living in TV. Weintraub had is contract at Warners cancelled (as a result of both The Avengers and another big budget flop, Soldier), only to return a few years later with Oceans 11. He is allegedly behind remakes of Westworld and Oh God! (I suspect he may be the washed-up former producer ‘Jerry’ referred to in Art Linson’s excellent memoir What Just Happened?)

Uma Thurman also went AWOL for a while, and now only seems to able to give a good performance when Quentin Tarantino is behind the camera.

If you’ve never seen it, I implore you to give it a chance. It’s certainly no worse than most of the tripe served up as entertainment these days. It’s easily better than any of the Star Wars prequels, either of the Matrix sequels, Die Another Day, Spiderman 3

Its the kind of film that doesn’t get made anymore. A genuine risk taker that the studio wasn’t prepared to take a chance on and ended up as generic pap with an intriguing coating.

If you’re interested, here’s the link to the online petition:

 This is one of the few supportive websites out there

Unfortunately, due a certain similar sounding comic book movie which is apparently iminent, it’s quite hard to find decent Avengers movie websites now. But I did manage to stumble across Warners original website. Most fo the content is now dead, but it gives a fascinating insight into web marketing in 1998