In 1998 there was one film alone that I was really excited about seeing on the big screen, it wasn’t apocalyptic Bay-hem in Armageddon, nor was it Pixar’s follow-up to Toy Story; A Bug’s Life, size definitely didn’t matter to me and Godzilla wasn’t my popcorn pick, Gibson and Glover were too old for this shit, so Lethal Weapon 4 didn’t pique my interest, and as far as TV shows adapted to the big screen Lost In Space was not the one I cared for…
The film I was most excited about was The Avengers.
Now, don’t get me wrong, The Avengers wasn’t going to be the best film of the year, even then, with my giddy eyed fandom in full fervour, I was at least savvy enough to appreciate that, and 1998 was littered with an impressive roster of films that are personal favourites and – somewhat more importantly – popular with critics and audiences as well.
Films like The Big Lebowski, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, Velvet Goldmine, The Truman Show, Zero Effect, Out of Sight, Nil By Mouth, The Thin Red Line, Apt Pupil, Dark City, The Butcher Boy, I Married A Strange Person, Baseketball, American History X, A Simple Plan, Bulworth, Buffalo 66, Pleasantville, Antz, Happiness, Gods and Monsters, Pi, heck, even Shakespeare In Love… Jeez! 1998 was incredible for great movies!
But I was most excited about The Avengers.
Why? You’re probably asking, and even if you’re not I’ll assume you are for the sakes of my own psychological analysis. Well, I was a massive fan of the TV series, when I was a nipper Channel 4 showed The Avengers on Fridays at 6pm and I adored the surreal, funny, sometimes scary, adventures of John Steed (Patrick Macnee) and Emma Peel (Diana Rigg). Beyond that Ralph Fiennes – thanks primarily to The English Patient – was one of my favourite actors at the time, Uma Thurman – despite Batman & Robin – still had some of her Pulp Fiction cred lingering, Sean Connery is a Hollywood legend and he’d be playing an OTT villain, I’ve always enjoyed Jim Broadbent’s performances and there was a bit part for Eddie Izzard who, at that time, was my favourite stand-up comedian.
The film had a whopping blockbuster budget, a great crew working on the production design (Stuart Craig who has gone on to do every single Harry Potter film) and costumes, as well as Terry Gilliam’s usual director of photography Roger Pratt and legendary stunt-man (Indiana Jones’ double) Vic Armstrong directing the second unit. Admittedly the director, Jeremiah Chechik, had a ropey CV at best, his finest credit being National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, but there was always a chance he was picked because he really ‘got’ the sensibility of the uber-Englishness of the TV show?
For the most part, I’d say he did, the film is cloaked by the long shadows of the television series, particularly the chemistry of its two leads, and whilst it takes a long time for the film’s narrative to allow the two to ‘hit it off’ they do begin to defrost in some of the later scenes. However, though he’s been compared to a shop mannequin, Fiennes is perfectly dapper as Steed, though lacking Macnee’s more rough edges, he more than holds his own in the action stakes and – though butchered in editing – the sword fight between Connery and Fiennes is one of my favourites, if, primarily, for its location and the maelstrom around them.
Thurman suffers a worse fate, she’s fine as her ‘robotic’ clone – an aspect of the story that is never really fleshed out in the film, but, for me, that felt perfectly in keeping with The Avengers modus operandi – but, and I excused it at the time as Thurman trying to keep the audience guessing, she’s equally as flat as Mrs. Peel, most notably in her first appearance when just answering the telephone seems like a monumental feat of concentration. But, she settles into the role – perhaps the film was shot chronologically? – around about the scene where Steed has bought her a pair of new boots, and a sexual tension finally begins to develop between the two, though the film does, unfortunately, ram it down the audience’s throats a bit by having Steed later kiss Mrs. Peel to check she’s not a clone or a robot, or, well, it was just a good shot for the trailer.
These vagaries are reportedly the result of a panicked studio taking the scissors to Chechik’s original 115 minute version and paring it down to 88 minutes! This decision was so last minute that I even remember my local cinema listing the 115 minute running time the week of release. The studio, Warner Bros, had become terrified about the film’s success after a screening to a “largely Spanish-speaking, working class” audience in Phoenix, Arizona (according to Peter Bart in his book The Gross), at which point Chechick was forced to cut scenes and conduct re-shoots, and, after that, there were no further test screenings, and not even press screenings prior to the release, which was postponed by two months.
This tactic kind of paid off for Warner Bros and they were able to scrape back a $10 million opening weekend in the August dumping ground. The film went on to win the Golden Razzie for ‘Worst Remake/Sequel’ and was nominated in another 8 categories. Since then Jeremiah Chechik has only worked in television, on his IMDB page there is a long quote from him about the making of the film, how much fun it was to develop and shoot and how the studio troubles started to arise and de-rail the picture towards the end of production, it’s an all too familiar story – akin to what happened to Gilliam by parts on Brazil and Baron Munchausen – with Chechik sombrely summarising:
“But the movie that was finally released was not the movie that I made… The failure of that movie changed my life. This movie was not a job for me. This was something that I was very, very passionate about… And so it really broke my heart.”
Chechik seems to still appreciate the film visually, and whilst the film’s narrative is at once very straight-forward but also rather disjointed, it holds up as a reasonably standard James Bond type yarn with some fun and bizarre set-pieces (the mechanical bees sequence is a particular highlight). But, maybe, The Avengers just wasn’t a series that should have been adapted, or at least something so faithful would always have been very out-of-step with contemporary sensibilities.
However, for all its flaws, I find it a thoroughly enjoyable failure, and if anything those flaws make it all the more compelling, each time I watch it I’m almost willing it to somehow transform itself into that first cut, whether that improves the film or not, to go to those un-dubbed, un-re-shot scenes and throw in all the sequences from the trailer that have never been seen since that Arizona screening, but appeared in delicious detail in the Making Of book and the published screenplay and as music on the album of the film’s score.
I still cross my fingers that one day someone at Warner Bros – and I’ve seen surprising internet petitions for this – will release a decent DVD package, including both cuts of the film, and maybe even a commentary from Chechik. (Perhaps even cynically release it when the superhero team-up baring the same name is released next year to try and cash in on a few accidental mis-sales!) Because, compared to 1998’s other blockbuster movies at least this film had a vision and a certain, almost misguided, integrity, at least Chechik’s heart was definitely in this and he delivered a visually arresting and, very different summer movie compared to the aforementioned likes of Lost In Space and Godzilla.
I know that The Avengers is not some under-appreciated masterpiece, or even a particularly worthy cult classic like Hudson Hawk or Ishtar, but it’s a unique film that for me, a fan of the original tv series, did honour the memory of that show and pay tribute to it with respect, wit and humour.
© BRWC 2010.
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