I used to have a thing for Diana Rigg as Emma Peel. I know, right? Me and about twenty million other people. For that matter, "used to" is wrong. I still do. I particularly have a fondness for this incarnation of Mrs. Peel, from 1966, in which she is transformed into the "Queen of Sin:"
Ahem...you can see how that might have imprinted itself on my perverted little mind. Anyway, with all due respect to Patrick Macnee's John Steed, it's Diana Rigg who made The Avengers work. You can totally feel the lack when Steed's partner is Honor Blackman or Linda Thorson or--may the gods of pop culture forgive me--Joanna Lumley instead. The heart of The Avengers was the dance of personalities between Steed and Mrs. Peel. Throw in a leather catsuit and some playful, implied BDSM, and you have the sexiest couple ever to cross the cathode ray tube. Frankly, without Diana Rigg, The Avengers is kind of goofy. Oh, Macnee makes it watchable--his persona was certainly strong enough--but the silliness of its sci fi super spy plots tended to weigh on it.
As it turns out, the actors playing Steed and Mrs. Peel are integral to the characters. Macnee and Rigg are irreplaceable in the roles. This is forcibly demonstrated in the 1998 movie version of The Avengers (directed by Jeremiah S. Chechik), which distills a dozen goofy ideas into a single plot and recasts Steed and Mrs. Peel with Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman. Fiennes and Thurman are certainly capable actors, but, let's face it, they don't have any chemistry and they aren't Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg. The bad guy in this movie is played by Sean Connery, and in theory, it should be fun watching Connery play an ersatz Bond villain. The movie even calls this out by recreating a scene from Goldfinger. The movie even throws in Eddie Izzard as the lead henchman. This all must have looked pretty good on paper. Hell, writing it out here suggests an awesome movie. Unfortunately, theory and practice are two different things.
The movie at least understands the appeal of The Avengers. It goes out of its way to provide Fiennes and Thurman with opportunities for playful banter. It just doesn't strike any sparks. Fiennes, for his part, plays Steed's unflappable-ness as devoid of emotion. He's almost a Vulcan. This presents a blank brick wall for Thurman to break herself against when casting sexually tinged barbs his way. Regrettably, the quality of the writing fails them at every turn. For her part, Thurman is saddled with the unenviable task of matching Diana Rigg while affecting a British accent. Uma Thurman is a bright and capable actress, but she doesn't quite manage it. She obviously understands the mystique of Emma Peel, but the filmmakers are another matter. They've not seen past the fashions with which they dress her--particularly the leather catsuit. As a result, Thurman is adrift.
Still, I have to admit to kind of enjoying the early parts of the movie, in which Steed and Mrs. Peel meet and form a partnership. The film doesn't really jump the rails until it dresses Sean Connery and his cadre of accomplices up like a furry convention. It's a completely random image, and it's where I started noticing that the filmmakers have basically slapped things together without any thought to how the pieces might match. This is a film that has no connective tissue. There are no logical transitions between scenes. It sometimes seems like it was edited with a food processor.
Oh, the story! This movie frames Mrs. Peel in a plot to control the weather. The evil mastermind is one Sir August de Wynter (Connery), who is conspiring with one of the heads of "The Ministry," to take over The Prospero project, with which they will extort 10% of the world's GNP. Steed and Mrs. Peel must get to the bottom of things, et cetera, et cetera. It pretty much doesn't make any sense. It aspires to be nothing but set pieces without taking the time to build any connections between plot elements. It DOES take time to put both Uma Thurman and Sean Connery into elaborate costumes. There's a scene about two thirds of the way through that acts as a metaphor for its plot, in which Mrs. Peel is caught in a staircase that seems to have been designed by M. C. Escher. It keeps recurring upon itself, arriving at the same point again and again. The plot, likewise, goes nowhere.
So. A sprawling, witless mess, though not quite unwatchable. It has a certain morbid fascination. Kind of like a twenty car pile-up.