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The Big Picture: A side order of irony, please

A STANDARD component of the spy or super-hero adventure is the heightened contrast between good and evil: elegant composure versus grotesque eccentricity.

The television series The Avengers drew on this, but it had something unique, too: a dash of Little England's parochial eeriness which, at its most potent, could suggest the tone of rustic horror films such as The Wicker Man and Witchfinder General.

It was never a consideration that the gentleman crime-fighter, John Steed, and his dominatrix colleague, Emma Peel, would be defeated. Knowing that the moral infrastructure of English life was afflicted with a squalid infection was enough. There was arsenic in the warm beer, and there were land-mines on the cricket green.

The film version of The Avengers tries for the same effect. There are references to the end of the Cold War, though the movie is set in a timeless England where the only vehicles on the roads are red double-decker buses and antique cars. The only visibly thriving industry in London is a gentlemen's outfitters.

And when Eddie Izzard appears, he carries a cosh and has been dressed as the sort of scallywag who might have troubled Jack Warner in The Blue Lamp.

The picture opens, as does From Russia with Love, with a training exercise. Steed (Ralph Fiennes) patrols a mocked-up village and fights off assailants disguised as arcane stereotypes - a friendly bobby, a prim nanny with something nasty in her perambulator. To anyone who grew up in the age of Rambo and Die Hard, it may be disconcerting to encounter a male hero like Steed who fastens a carnation to his lapel before combat.

The elements in The Avengers that succeed are few, but they are notable for their precise evocation of the original series' naive surrealism. It was a splendid idea to have the villain, August De Wynter (Sean Connery) address a committee of stooges who, in an effort to preserve their anonymity from each other, are all dressed in gaily coloured teddy-bear suits. It may be the only time in the picture that form, content and direction convene harmoniously - but the clash between the rotund teddies and the rigid, vertical lines of the hi-tech office tower where they are assembled generates comic sparks that tickle the eye.

Jeremiah Chechik may have no idea about how to pace a film or direct actors, but he can conjure up a blissful image - the blazing red telephone box standing on the edge of a country garden; the giant rack of umbrellas where only the polished wooden handles are visible, crooked and gleaming like tusks and antlers.

And there is an odd excerpt of security camera footage shot in silent- era-style jerky monochrome, making Thurman resemble Louise Brooks in Pandora's Box.

What is hardest of all to penetrate is the arch self-consciousness of the whole enterprise, which curbs any chance of engagement at source. Nineties audiences are accustomed to imbibing a heavy side-order of irony with their cinematic fast food, but The Avengers can provide neither the cheap buzz of the modern action movie, nor an intelligent deconstruction of the same.

What you get from The Avengers is a crushing greyness. If Steed and Peel are not especially bothered by poisoned darts, evil doppelgangers or a swarm of mechanical armoured wasps, why should we be?

James Bond came equipped with more puns than guns, but he usually waited until after he had disabled his opponent to dispense one, and at least he had the decency to break out in a sweat when the villain strapped him to Goldfinger's torture table.

On general release