In an age of director's cuts and extended additions, the irony is that the films that need restoration the most are the very ones that never get it. Thus the Weinsteins chose not to restore The Fall of the Roman Empire, MGM/UA chose not only to ignore the existing four-hour rough-cut version of Tony Richardson's The Charge of the Light Brigade but actually put out a cut version of the theatrical version and the much-troubled 1998 movie version of The Avengers will never be seen as it was originally intended. It's not the catastrophe its often portrayed, but the studio only had themselves to blame for the over-reaction by violating the quid-pro-quo relationship with the press by not screening it for the critics, a public relations disaster that lead to many publications imposing a blacklist on articles about their films for months after and picking it as their turkey of the year.
Warner Bros. 75th anniversary year was certainly not good one, with flop after flop turning their planned celebrations into commiserations. Perhaps in any other year there would have been less pressure on trying to turn an always optimistically surreal cult item into a blockbuster despite increasingly bad word of mouth, but by the time it emerged from lengthy post-production, the film was covered from head to toe in self-inflicted wounds. What had started out with a two-hour plus running time went to a 101-minute compromise cut to a released version that ran only 81 minutes without credits with Michael Kamen's original score replaced by a quickie effort from Joel McNeely as they tried to unsuccessfully make it more conventional to an audience unfamiliar with the series while alienating the original fans. It's just a surprise they didn't try to edit it down further to the length of a TV episode - even the troubled movie version of The Saint only lost its last 20 minutes. In the process they simply turned an interesting misfire into a much shorter, more confusing misfire and ended up with something too surreal for mainstream audiences, and too mainstream for Avengers fans. (The BFI was offered the chance to screen and preserve the original cut in 1999, but all too typically blew it by not bothering to return the studio's calls!)
The loss of the original (and heavily trailered) opening was certainly a huge mistake. Instead of seeing Mrs Peel (or is it?) breaking into and destroying a weather station, something that triggers the plot (a variation on both the original show's A Surfeit of H20 and Our Man Flint with a weather-controlling eccentric millionaire holding the world to ransom), the film now opens with Steed taking on policemen, milkmen and machine-gun toting nannies with only his bowler and brolly - an enjoyable enough introductory scene but not as essential to understanding what's going on. That's just the first of many plot holes the film is left with, but they're still the least of the film's problems.
On the plus side, Ralph Fiennes wisely doesn't attempt a Patrick McNee impersonation as Steed, opting for a more formal, slightly reserved approach that lacks Macnee's effortless bonhomie but works well enough on its own terms. Jim Broadbent makes a good `Mother' and Eileen Atkins (in a cameo originally intended for Diana Rigg) effortlessly steals her few scenes. But if they're all on good form, just about everyone else isn't. Indeed, there's miscasting on an epic scale here - Fiona Shaw overacting for England yet again as `Father,' Eddie Izzard exuding all the menace of a fluffy kitten and Uma Thurman delivering a turn bad enough to make you sorry they didn't cast Elizabeth Hurley as Mrs Peel instead. You feel almost sorry for her and wonder how she ever got another job after this - she can't do comedy, she can't do the accent, she can't do sophisticated, she can't do the banter and most of her action scenes hit the cutting room floor, which reduces her to not much more than a clotheshorse. That there's absolutely no chemistry between her and Fiennes is just another nail in the coffin.
Sadly it's a performance more than matched by what originally seemed the film's great casting coup. Sean Connery, once again showing the keen commercial instinct that led him to turn down X-Men, Lord of the Rings and The Mask of Zorro, gives a career-worst performance in his first role as a villain since 1959's Tarzan's Greatest Adventure and 1984's Sword of the Valiant. Looking like Windsor Davies playing a dirty old man but without the restraint, his introductory single-entendre scene with Thurman is painful to watch as she flounders and he mistimes every line - it's the kind of thing you'd expect in a Robbie Moffat film where amateur actors only get one take and it goes in the picture whether they fluff it or not. It cannot be stressed enough just how absolutely awful he is for much of the film, and considering how often Connery's double stood in for him Peter Sellers-style even on non-action scenes because of the star's feuds with the director and producer (shades of LXG) you find yourself wondering if his better moments may not even be him.
There's a lot about it that's good - the teddy bear scene is spot on and worthy of the original show while Patrick McNee's cameo non-appearance is fun - and a lot that isn't - Roger Pratt's dour photography overcompensates for the primary colors of Stuart Craig's production design and Anthony Powell's costumes. Yet while it's a mess that often stops making sense thanks to the unsubtle re-editing, it's still surprisingly watchable, with just enough moments that do work and give a hint of what could have been to keep you soldiering on through the patches that fall flat. It's just a shame we'll probably never see the film the way it was originally intended to judge it on its own merits rather than the studio's second-guessing.
Not much in the way of extras here - the Region 1 NTSC disc has the trailer, but the PAL UK disc doesn't even have that - though the disc does have an acceptable widescreen transfer.