Manufacturing Dissent

The Avengers
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Hollywood hype is manufactured. Someone creates it. And that includes hype of the "underground" buzz variety, which last week, via a syndicated preview article, advised Strib readers to skip The Avengers. It's worth asking, at the risk of sounding like I've spent too much time in Montana, why some movies meet the market with vultures circling. The Avengers, starring Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman, is not a very good movie. But I would say it fails better than Lethal Weapon 4, Godzilla, and Armageddon succeed. This film's problems--and Hollywood's reaction to them--certainly intrigue me more than yet another ballad of the average white man fantasizing "alien" (read: not white) genocide.

Of course, many of The Avengers' faults are standard '90s Hollywood issue. The '60s British TV show that first introduced suave special agent John Steed (Patrick Macnee) and his bodacious sidekick Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) went down like dry champagne, crisp and bubbly. Comparatively, this version's would-be witty dialogue resembles a five-dollar bottle of pink sparkly (sample: "I thought I was seeing double." "That makes two of us."). The filmmakers should have realized that their attempts were doomed from the start; after all, what was the last clever Hollywood romantic comedy you've seen? And please, don't say Sleepless in Seattle or When Harry Met Sally...: The original Steed and Peel, and their foreparents Nick and Nora, could out-sass those lightweights before breakfast.

Director Jeremiah Chechik exacerbates the verbal dullness by sending his comedy and his action-adventure sequences to separate rooms, especially during the finale; a touch more whimsy there might have leavened the requisite use of large explosives. Again, this bungle is nothing new. As we've learned from the long train of "event movies," it's difficult to combine massive displays of violence with intelligent banter. The small-screen X-Files beats out the big-screen X-Files precisely because its brutalities are peculiar and intimate--like its humor.

For similiar reasons, The Avengers' hoary weather-bender Sir August De Wynter (Sean Connery) does not impress. This villain is supposedly quite brilliant, but what brilliant man would want to rule the world? As for camp: After Austin Powers, Connery's dentured scene-chomping is hardly worthy of the name "evil." De Wynter works, when he does, as a foil to Fiennes's Steed: De Wynter seeks still more power, while Steed would share his; the former grabs what he wants, the latter politely requests; one is all burly space-hogging while the other is economical and shy. Fiennes fashions quite a different creature than Macnee's blueprint. That Steed wore dapper clothes and gentle manners, but he also chatted up the dollies and gave Peel orders. He was a man, in the traditional sense. This Steed, well, suffice it to say there's something effeminate about Ralph Fiennes, and I mean that in the best way. His softness, if you will, was what made his SS officer in Schindler's List so disturbing. The English Patient used that vulnerability to communicate his character's strong passion and weak spine. Now, with Steed, Fiennes exhibits a conscious frailty, inviting this Mrs. Peel to fully inhabit her share of the game.

As Peel, Thurman often seems thrown off-balance by this tactic, and sometimes she retreats to playing supergirl instead of superwoman. There are moments, though, when she accepts Fiennes's challenge: namely, in a dazzling cat-and-dog sword fight and a sly round of chess, both of which she wins confidently--and he, too, in another sense. These sequences swing with a provocative, if strictly physical, energy. The only time the repartee flies as well is during one swollenly symbolic scene wherein Steed envelops Peel's heel in a leather boot. This gender switching is both bewitching and remarkably hot.

Gender sport abounds as well in the introduction of two secret agent co-commanders. He (a wonderfully fusty Jim Broadbent) goes by code name "Mother"; she (an unrecognizably butch Fiona Shaw), by "Father." In the end, though, Connery's De Wynter claims Big Daddyhood, complete with diverse harem; the film's logic sets the Patriarch against Steed and Peel's New Equality, and the best "man" loses. Unfortunately, the last contest pits Steed hand-to-hand with De Wynter, and Fiennes has left his agent so fragile that the outcome fails to convince. Which begs the question: Can the New Man beat the Old Bond in a fistfight? And why would he want to?

Chechik's movie envisions a near-future in which gender markers have become detached from their meanings: Old grannies wield fat cock machine guns; traditional Ma wears traditional Pa's suit, and he her skirt; the gender avengers dress conservatively, if smartly. (In general, the costumes and set design are as droll as the dialogue is not.) Underneath the confused signifiers, of course, the power hierarchy has not altered. The Avengers imagines that structure breaking down, finally. But Chechik has to struggle against the structure of the action-adventure movie, which demands that any threat of change be exploded. Steven Soderbergh had the same trouble with Out of Sight. How do you create tension when your hero would rather switch than fight (the future, that is)? It's like riding a boat while destroying it. Next time, they ought to try building a new ship.

 
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