Thursday, April 12, 2012

Retrospective: The Avengers (no... the *other* Avengers).

No, I wasn't invited to see Marvel's The Avengers for last night's premiere, and I wasn't able to snag tickets to this Saturday's 'Facebook fan screening', so I'll probably be out of the loop until regular press screenings start up during the week prior to release.  But since I couldn't see The Avengers that everyone cares about, I'd thought I'd be ironic and check out the one everyone forgot about.  Back in 1998, The Avengers was my most-anticipated film of that summer season.  I didn't know a damn thing about the original 1960s show, but I did know that it was being sold as a big-budget action-comedy with Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman as the dapper heroes and Sean Connery ironically playing a Blofeld-type super-villain.  I discussed the run-up to its release three years ago, so I won't repeat what I wrote there.  Before last night, I had not actually seen the film in the fourteen years since its opening day in theatrical release.  So, in hindsight, what's the verdict?

Well, it's still not a good film.  But more than ever, it remains less a bad film than a painfully incomplete picture.  It's no secret that the film suffered a terrible test screening in Arizona which led to mortified Warner Bros. executives cutting the film down from around 120 minutes to the current 89 minute-running time.  It is, more than perhaps any modern 'victim of post-production tinkering' a shell of its former self.  It is not a complete film, it is not a complete story, it is not really anything other than a glorified highlight reel.  At best, it is an extended trailer for the film that it once was, with most of the 'good parts' left intact while providing no context to their existence.  Most of the dialogue is expository in nature, with large amounts of screen-time spent explicitly explaining plot that happened offscreen.  Much of character motivation and development is left on the cutting room floor, and I am convinced to this day that the only reason I could follow the film is because I read the original script prior to the film's release.  Aside from its real flaws, the absolute lack of a supporting cast, and the 'lost in the woods' nature of Sean Connery's performance, the biggest sin is that The Avengers as it exists is not really a movie in any conventional sense.

But the surprise of this second viewing was how much I enjoyed certain individual scenes.  The opening fight sequence between Ralph Fiennes and a half-dozen or so opponents is still amusing.  Uma Thurman still oozes sex both in her attire and gorgeous red hair as well as her unblinking confidence and charm which downplays the whole 'it's a girl who can kick-ass' meme (that she can kick your butt is mostly taken for granted).  The first-act sword fight between Thurman and Fiennes stands out for several reasons.  First of all, it's highly prurient in nature, even in its tame barely PG-13 fashion.  Second of all, by today's '10,000 cuts a minute' editing style, the action is clearly shot and coherently edited resulting in a genuinely engaging sparring match.  The production design is still appropriately weird and you can see how they blew $60 million even while a number of action sequences promised in the trailers are not in the finished film (yes, they even cut action sequences for the sake of that bare-minimum running time).  The moment with Uma Thurman trapped in a Penrose staircase remains trippy and amusing, and I still adore all of the material involving villains dressed as giant stuffed teddy bears.  Plus the action finale is engaging enough to make you wish that the rest of the picture had the same momentum.  Yes, a film like this should end with one hero battling a villain while high atop a bottomless chasm (complete with resulting death plunge) and the other hero battling the other villain in a sword fight during a massive rush of flooding and lightning.  That it gets a pretty basic detail like that right (which any number of bigger and more ambitious action films get wrong) makes its obvious deficiencies all the more frustrating.

But even without the 30 minutes of footage that would have at least made it a coherent motion picture, I think I finally figured out what went wrong.  Again, I speak without knowledge of the original series, but the film goes through its fantasy-action plotline without a hint of emotional engagement or rising blood pressure.  The running gag throughout the film is how our two heroes are never really fazed by the chaos around them.  But the film is edited and staged in that mindset as well, meaning we the audience don't have our pulse quickening either.  I get that the film wanted to remain faithful the stereotypical British 'stiff upper lip' mentality.  People die, stuff blows up, cars get attacked by flying robotic bees, characters are attacked by their own double, and nobody seems to care all that much.  I get the mentality at play, but it renders what should be relatively exciting as almost dull.  The whole film is staged, scored, and edited less like a big-budget action film than a period costume comedy where Big Ben gets blown up during the third act.  I appreciate the attempt at something so completely different, especially in the realm of blockbuster filmmaking, but I'd be lying if I said it was successful.

So in the end it is unlikely that the fabled 120-minute cut of Jeremiah S. Chechik's The Avengers is a good film undone by studio interference.  The project seems doomed from the start, due to its contradictory desires to tell a low-key British comedy of manners-tale within an action film while still crafting an exciting adventure.  But that doesn't mean that the original cut isn't a better movie purely by virtue of its completeness and (I presume) improved coherency.  Fourteen years after the fact, I'd still love to get my hands on a director's cut of The Avengers.  But the film as it stands is a fascinating failure: a genuinely bad movie that is both destroyed by post-production interference yet still containing a number of highly positive elements.  It certainly is weirder and more singular in tone than any number of mediocre 'film-by-committee' blockbusters than have come our way since 1998.  But no, I won't pretend that its troubled history and genuine ambition negates its status as a 'bad' film.  But it is a bad movie worth watching at least once.

Scott Mendelson                       


jermsguy said...

I remember doing everything in my power trying to like it, and when the creditws rolled I thought "two and a half stars" and by the time I went to bed it'd gone down to one-and-a-half, and when I wrote my review it was down to one.

City0880 said...

nice idea.. thanks for sharing.


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