First Night: Steed and Peel play it cool to preserve kitsch and irony

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The Avengers

At Selected Cinemas

THE AVENGERS, marks I-III, was a British TV series in the days before there was any prestige or integrity in being considered a cult product.

Patrick MacNee and Honor Blackman (later replaced by Diana Rigg) were, respectively, the bowler-hatted gent and the leather-suited action heroine. Together, they wrestled with megalomaniacs hell-bent on destroying England, or, on a bad day, the world.

What made the show such a joy was the combination of wild set pieces, campy scripts and costumes, and just a dash of Little England's parochial eeriness. Resurrected in the Seventies as the New Avengers, the show whittled those qualities down until only the camp elements remained.

, mark IV, is a big budget Hollywood blockbuster with A-list stars. Ralph Fiennes plays John Steed and Uma Thurman plays Emma Peel, with Sean Connery in a rare villainous role as August de Wynter, who sashayed around in a kilt bellowing diabolically about his plan to take over the world by controlling the weather. By now, you will know that Warner Bros refused to screen the film for critics, a move which seems to suggest bad faith.

So was the caution of the company justified, and should paying audiences be flattered or offended by Warner Bros' claim that the film is so good that the public should be allowed to judge it first? If the overheard reactions of an audience in Harlow, Essex, last night were anything to go by, no one has been charmed by this attempt at taking an already arch and ironic idea and applying an extra coat of Nineties post-modernism. In fact, as the film spluttered to a halt before the 90-minute mark, there was a palpable sense of bewilderment rippling around the auditorium. "What was that?" everyone seemed to be asking.

This was based, perhaps, on the film's failure to capture the gleeful spirit of the show. When you remove the resourceful design and playful writing of the TV series, you are left with a spy caper in which every opportunity for real tension is curbed at source. If Steed and Peel continue their prissy banter even as they are being attacked by ruthless assassins or besieged by a swarm of mechanical wasps, then where is the pleasure for any audience?

James Bond may have had a mountain of puns at his disposal, but he usually waited until after his assailants had been thwarted to deliver one, and even he broke out in a sweat when he was strapped to Goldfinger's table.

When a thriller is so efficient at all attempts to rid itself of potential thrills, you have to wonder what possible reason it might have to exist. The promised sexual tension between Fiennes and Thurman never materialises; the sets, so often a source of pleasure in the original series, could amaze only those viewers unfamiliar with Terry Gilliam's Brazil. Possibly the director, Jeremiah Chechik, was aiming for the same tone as Mike Hodges' 1980 film Flash Gordon, which also used kitsch and irony to resuscitate an ailing franchise. But that film had fun pumping through its veins. By contrast, is dead on arrival.

(A longer review will appear on tomorrow's arts pages.)