The Avengers (1998)

The 100 Films Guide to…

The Avengers

Saving the World in Style.

Also Known As:
Chapeau melon et bottes de cuir (France — Bowler Hat and Leather Boots)
Mit Schirm, Charme und Melone (Germany — With Umbrella, Charm and Bowler Hat)

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 89 minutes
BBFC: 12
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 13th August 1998 (Israel)
UK Release: 14th August 1998
Budget: $60 million
Worldwide Gross: $48.6 million

Stars
Ralph Fiennes (Schindler’s List, Harry Potter)
Uma Thurman (Batman & Robin, Kill Bill: Vol. 1)
Sean Connery (Goldfinger, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen)

Director
Jeremiah Chechik (National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Benny & Joon)

Screenwriter
Don MacPherson (Absolute Beginners, The Gunman)

Based on
The Avengers, a ’60s British TV series created by Sydney Newman.


The Story
After the UK’s weather control project is destroyed, apparently by one of its own scientists, Ministry agent John Steed is assigned to investigate. Teaming up with that scientist, Mrs Emma Peel, they uncover a plot to hold the world’s governments to ransom…

Our Heroes
Extraordinary crimes against the people and the state must be avenged by agents extraordinary: John Steed: traditional, stylish, reserved, lethal. Emma Peel: doctor, atomic scientist, poet, meteorologist, physicist, marksman.

Our Villain
A former agent of the Ministry, Sir August de Wynter is now head of BROLLY, the British Royal Organization for Lasting Liquid Years, who have developed the technology to control the weather and now seek to put it to nefarious ends.

Best Supporting Character
Machine-gun firing granny Alice. Eileen Atkins was offered the role of the Ministry’s deputy leader, Father, but thought the part of Alice sounded more fun, so they re-wrote to enlarge it for her.

Memorable Quote
“Now is the winter of your discontent!” — Sir August de Wynter

Memorable Scene
Instructed to meet Steed at his gentleman’s club, Mrs Peel waltzes into the place, despite the objections of the receptionist. She marches through the building, shocking the patrons, until she finds Steed in the steam room — naked but for the newspaper he’s reading. “Please, don’t get up.” “I was about to throw in the towel.”

Memorable Music
Michael Kamen was originally hired to score the film, but eventually quit after being constantly given revised cuts of the movie to work with. His replacement, Joel McNeely, had to turn something round in short notice, and I’ve seen his score described as clearly rushed, dull and uninspired. But at least the TV series’ classic theme is in there, and fairly well used — once right at the start (although there’s an ever-so-’90s X-Files-y number over the main credits), and then again perfectly as a farewell over the final scene. Rumour has it Kamen’s score was darker and more atmospheric, with a greater and more interesting use of the original theme. Given the general disregard for the movie, I don’t imagine it’ll ever be unearthed for us to find out for ourselves.

Letting the Side Down
The teddy-bear meeting, where the participants are kept anonymous by wearing giant teddy-bear costumes. It’s an attempt at emulating the whimsy of the TV series, but an empty one — as the series’ regular writer Brian Clemens once commented, if the plot’s about controlling the weather then the meeting should’ve been weather-themed somehow.

Some people would say there’s a lot more wrong with the film than just that one scene, but there’s more to it than that…

Making of
When Warner Bros execs saw the first cut of the movie, it was not what they were expecting. I don’t know what they were expecting, but I guess not something so tongue-in-cheek, whimsical, and camp. Apparently the first test screening in Phoenix, Arizona, was to a “largely Spanish-speaking, working class” audience — hardly the film’s target market, and unsurprisingly they hated it. The studio forced cuts and reshoots, taking the movie from 115 minutes to a sprightly 89, sacrificing plot coherence for the sake of speed. And so a true disaster was born.

Previously on…
This is a reboot rather than continuation of the original TV series — it shows how Steed and Mrs Peel met for the first time. I don’t know if the TV series actually covered that (I really should watch it all one of these days), but I don’t imagine it went like this.

Next time…
The Avengers ultimately became a massively successful multi-film franchise under the auspices of Marvel Studios. Oh, no, wait, that’s some other thing. No, after suffering atrocious reviews (it’s sometimes cited as one of the worst movies of all time), the ’98 Avengers slinked off into relative obscurity (it’s probably better remembered here than in the US thanks to the TV series connection, but Marvel’s super-friends are gradually replacing it in the consciousness, sadly). Still, the world of the TV series lives on in occasional comic books and audio dramas.

Awards
1 Razzie (Worst Remake or Sequel (tied with Godzilla and Psycho))
8 Razzie nominations (Worst Picture, Actor (Ralph Fiennes), Actress (Uma Thurman), Screen Couple (Fiennes & Thurman), Supporting Actor (Sean Connery), Director, Screenplay, Original Song (Storm by Grace Jones))

Verdict

I was one of the half-dozen people who actually saw The Avengers at the cinema in 1998. I don’t remember disliking it, but then I was all of 12 so what would I have known? Its poor reputation has only grown in the intervening decades, so I wasn’t expecting to think much of it as a more critically sophisticated adult. But, much to my surprise, I kind of loved it.

I guess in ’98 people were expecting some kind of serious-minded thriller, probably in the Bond mould — this was just after GoldenEye and Tomorrow Never Dies had relaunched that series to much acclaim and box office success, of course, and The Avengers was another hallmark of ’60s British spy-fi. But The Avengers and Bond were never the same tonally, and the film embraces the mannered, quirky tone of the TV series, then turns it up to eleven. Personally I think it’s a tonne of fun, with arch performances, ripe dialogue, and a deliciously camp air.

If it wasn’t for WB’s post-production fiddling, which has left the plot feeling a bit janky and spasmodic, I reckon this would be a cult classic by now. They really ought to have a bad reputation for that kind of fiddling at this point — Batman Forever, Suicide Squad, and Justice League come to mind. But never mind the Snyder cut, I want them to #ReleaseTheChechikCut. Sadly, it’ll never happen.

Pulp Fiction (1994)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #71

You won’t know the facts
until you see the fiction.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 154 minutes
BBFC: 18 (uncut, 1994) | 18 (cut on video, 1995) | 18 (uncut on video, 2011)
MPAA: R

Original Release: 10th September 1994 (South Korea)
US Release: 14th October 1994
UK Release: 21st October 1994
First Seen: TV, 18th December 1999 (probably)
(I would’ve guessed several years later than that, but I definitely watched it on BBC Two and I definitely wasn’t 18, so (with reference to the BBC Genome Project) this is the only plausible option. That’s thrown all of my “first seen” guesses into doubt now…)

Stars
John Travolta (Grease, Face/Off)
Samuel L. Jackson (Loaded Weapon 1, Unbreakable)
Uma Thurman (Dangerous Liaisons, Gattaca)
Ving Rhames (Dave, Mission: Impossible)
Bruce Willis (Die Hard, The Fifth Element)

Director
Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill)

Screenwriter
Quentin Tarantino (From Dusk Till Dawn, Jackie Brown)

Story by
Quentin Tarantino (Natural Born Killers, The Hateful Eight)
Roger Avary (Killing Zoe, The Rules of Attraction)

The Story
A chronologically-shuffled collection of interconnected short crime stories, including a hitman who has to take his boss’ wife for a nice night out, a boxer who refuses to throw a fight, the clean-up after a misfire, and a diner hold-up gone sideways.

Our Heroes & Villains
Most films can be divvied up into heroes and villains one way or another — I’ve certainly managed it for the previous 70 films in this list. Pulp Fiction muddies its waters considerably, with criminals for heroes at the best of times, and the “short story collection” style meaning there’s an abundance of characters anyway, some of whom arguably change sides from one tale to the next. Nonetheless, you’d have to point to hitmen Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield, and their ever-so-Tarantino rambling conversations about nothing and everything, as the film’s primary duo.

Best Supporting Character
Christopher Walken’s cameo turn as an army vet passing down a watch with an… unusual history. (You might argue for Harvey Keitel’s character, but his Direct Line adverts have rather soured that.)

Memorable Quote
Vincent: “You know what they call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?”
Jules: “They don’t call it a Quarter Pounder with Cheese?”
Vincent: “No man, they got the metric system. They wouldn’t know what the fuck a Quarter Pounder is.”
Jules: “Then what do they call it?”
Vincent: “They call it a Royale with Cheese.”
Jules: “Royale with Cheese. What do they call a Big Mac?”
Vincent: “Big Mac’s a Big Mac, but they call it Le Big Mac.”
Jules: “Le Big Mac. What do they call a Whopper?”
Vincent: “I don’t know, I didn’t go into Burger King.”

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“You mind if I have some of your tasty beverage to wash this down?” — Jules

Memorable Scene
Uma Thurman and John Travolta dancing — about as memorable a movie moment as there is.

Memorable Music
Famously, Tarantino never used to use original music (that’s now changed with his Ennio Morricone collaborations, of course), instead selecting tracks from his record collection — but his choices were so eclectic, obscure, and personal that many of them are now most associated with the films he put them in. Stand outs in Pulp Fiction include the title credits track, Dick Dale’s version of Misirlou; the song Mia and Vincent dance to, You Never Can Tell by Chuck Berry; and Urge Overkill’s cover of Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon.

Making of
The famous Bible passage memorised by Jules is mostly fictional. While one line is similar to text from the book, apparently the speech is almost word-for-word identical to the opening scene of the Sonny Chiba movie Karate Kiba.

Next time…
Travolta’s character, Vincent Vega, is supposedly the brother of Michael Madsen’s character from Reservoir Dogs, and at one time Tarantino was planning a movie starring the pair. It never materialised, obviously. There’s also the theory that all of Tarantino’s films take place in the same universe, which the director himself has confirmed.

Awards
Won the Palme d’Or
1 Oscar (Original Screenplay)
6 Oscar nominations (Picture, Actor (John Travolta), Supporting Actor (Samuel L. Jackson), Supporting Actress (Uma Thurman), Director, Editing)
2 BAFTAs (Supporting Actor (Samuel L. Jackson), Original Screenplay)
7 BAFTA nominations (Film, Actor (John Travolta), Actress (Uma Thurman), Director, Cinematography, Editing, Sound)
1 Saturn Award (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film)
2 MTV Movie Awards (Movie, Dance Sequence)
4 MTV Movie Awards nominations (including On-Screen Duo (Samuel L. Jackson & John Travolta) and Movie Song (Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon))
1 American Comedy Awards nomination (Funniest Supporting Actress (Amanda Plummer))

What the Critics Said
“this dizzily convoluted noir epic — one of the year’s best and most wildly inventive American movies — plunges us into a kind of retro-nightmare fantasy land. In Pulp Fiction, time keeps looping back on itself and we’re trapped in a cul-de-sac of double-crosses, absurdity, arousal and danger, never completely sure of where anyone’s going or why. [It] is shockingly violent, provocatively obscene and profane. It won’t just offend some audiences; it will offend the living hell out of them. Tarantino intends to rile people up. But it doesn’t feel like the usual high-tech, nasty blood-and-guts movie thriller […] This movie gets its charge not from action pyrotechnics but from its electric barrage of language, wisecracks and dialogue, from the mordant ’70s classicism of its long-take camera style and its smart, offbeat, strangely sexy cast.” — Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune

Score: 94%

What the Public Say
Pulp Fiction begins at its end. It is cyclical but we don’t realise this until we come to its final moments. Like many of Tarantino’s films, it is episodic and split into sections that overlap in both time and plot. It is far from linear; several threads occurring simultaneously, woven together by chance meetings, coincidence and common acquaintances. Travolta’s Vincent Vega is both alive and dead at the end of the film, such is the genius of the script. [It] is a film that demands a viewer’s attention, engagement and use of their brain to put the pieces of the puzzle together.” — Behind the Seens

Verdict

A defining movie for the American indie/auteur boom of the late ’80s and early ’90s, and consequently one of the most influential films of the ’90s… but it is itself heavily influenced by and recreated from styles and genres of the past… and yet, despite those two reflective sides, it’s not quite like anything else — Pulp Fiction is a rule unto itself. In only his second feature, Tarantino’s direction is remarkably self-assured; rarely flashy or showy, but not simplistic or uninteresting either. It’s a film where the famed dialogue is as vital as the characters’ actions, but it’s not one that’s solely driven by people talking to each other. Events interrupt them shooting the breeze, but it’s also them shooting the breeze that drives the action. It’s a film of many opposing facets, then, which is quite possibly what keeps it fascinating — almost as an incidental addition to the humour and style that keep it entertaining.

#72 will have snakes… why did it have to have snakes?

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #48

A Roaring Rampage of Revenge

Also Known As: Kill Bill: Volume 1

Country: USA
Language: English, Japanese & French
Runtime: 111 minutes
BBFC: 18
MPAA: R

Original Release: 10th October 2003 (USA)
UK Release: 17th October 2003
First Seen: cinema, October 2003

Stars
Uma Thurman (Pulp Fiction, My Super Ex-Girlfriend)
Lucy Liu (Charlie’s Angels, The Man with the Iron Fists)
Vivica A. Fox (Independence Day, Sharknado 2: The Second One)
Daryl Hannah (Splash, Wall Street)
David Carradine (Death Race 2000, Q: The Winged Serpent)

Director
Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds)

Screenwriter
Quentin Tarantino (True Romance, Django Unchained)

The Story
Left for dead by her former teammates, highly-skilled martial artist the Bride awakes from her coma with one thing on her mind: to hunt down her would-be assassins in a roaring rampage of revenge.

Our Hero
The Bride, aka Black Mamba, aka [bleep], is a deadly assassin out for revenge against the gang of former associates who tried to murder her, in particular their leader, Dave. No, wait, that’s not right. What was his name? Anyway…

Our Villains
The five former members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad who were involved in the Bride’s ‘murder’. In this film, that amounts to Veronica Green (aka Copperhead), who has settled down as a suburban mom, and O-Ren Ishii (aka Cottonmouth) who is now the leader of the yakuza, commanding a veritable army of ninjas. You’ll have to wait ’til the next film for the other three members to turn up properly, including their leader, Bob. No, wait, that’s not right. What was his name?

Best Supporting Character
O-Ren Ishii’s ultra-violent head bodyguard, teenage schoolgirl Gogo Yubari. Proficient with a weapon that I’ve just learnt is called a meteor hammer. How awesome is that?

Memorable Quote
“That woman deserves her revenge and we deserve to die.” — Budd

Memorable Scene
The House of Blue Leaves: after calling out O-Ren Ishii, defeating her six bodyguards, and meteor hammer-wielding Gogo, the Bride turns to face O-Ren herself… when the sound of dozens of motorbikes roars outside. “You didn’t think it would be that easy, did you?” In flood O-Ren’s yakuza army, the Crazy 88, surrounding the Bride. The fighting begins, and when our hero bloodily plucks out one of their eyes, the film smash-cuts to black & white to obscure the ensuing bloody bloodbath of bloodletting.

Memorable Music
Tarantino once again raids his record collection to create the film’s eclectic soundscape. The stand-out track is surely Tomoyasu Hotei’s Battle Without Honor or Humanity, the theme from New Battles Without Honor and Humanity (aka Another Battle), which has been co-opted into endless TV montages since it appeared in Bill. Of course, there’s also the cover of Woo Hoo by the 5.6.7.8’s, which contains the immortal lyrics, “woo-hoo woo-hoo-hoo, woo-hoo woo-hoo-hoo / woo-hoo, woo-hoo, woo-hoo woo-hoo-hoo.”

Truly Special Effect
In his quest for authenticity to the ’70s martial arts movies he was homaging, Tarantino forbid the use of either CG blood or modern physical methods. Blood spurts were achieved in the same way the Shaw Brothers movies did decades earlier: condoms full of fake blood that splattered on impact.

Making of
The big battle with the Crazy 88 (see: memorable scene) is in black-and-white everywhere apart from Japan (and in The Whole Bloody Affair single-film cut (see: next time)). This is partly an homage to US TV screenings of kung fu movies in the ’70s and ’80s, when censors insisted scenes of extreme bloodshed be obscured by the removal of colour. However, the scene was meant to be in colour (hence why it still is in Japan), but the MPAA demanded the scene be somehow toned down — hence why Tarantino threw in the old TV technique. So it is an homage, but one brought about for the same reason as the originals.

Next time…
Originally shot as one film, Kill Bill wound up way too long and so was split in half for its initial release, with Vol.2 coming out six months later. Tarantino has long promised a single cut version, known as The Whole Bloody Affair, and since 2011 a version of that has screened a couple of times at the L.A. cinema he co-owns. No luck for the rest of us, though. Rumours persist of a Vol.3, which Tarantino always said he wanted to wait ten to fifteen years to make, so we’re in prime “maybe now?” territory.

Awards
5 BAFTA nominations (Actress (Uma Thurman), Music, Editing, Sound, Visual Effects)
2 Saturn Awards (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film, Actress (Uma Thurman))
5 Saturn nominations (Supporting Actor (Sonny Chiba), Supporting Actress (Lucy Liu), Director, Writing, Cinescape Genre Face of the Future Award – Female (Chiaki Kuriyama))

What the Critics Said
“Quentin Tarantino’s giddy homage to the movies he grew up with at the grind houses — the Hong Kong chop-sockies and spaghetti Westerns and samurai and blaxploitation flicks. […] There is no ironic overlay in Tarantino’s movies, no ‘commenting” on the pop schlock he’s replicating. He simply wants to remake in his own way the kinds of movies he’s always loved, and he’s about as uncynical as a movie geek can be.” — Peter Rainer, New York

Score: 85%

What the Public Say
“post-modernism retains an awareness of the past, and examines how the past can be reshuffled into something new and exciting. The idea is to take pieces, tropes and archetypes from past-movements and to reshape them, deconstruct them and reference them, ultimately, with the goal of transcending them. And Quentin Tarantino, as a director, understands this process. […] Kill Bill is something of a post-modern masterpiece, and whilst it never really goes beyond the surface of its tropes, it remains one of the most impressive and entertaining movies of the 2000s.” — Carl, some films and stuff

Verdict

If Tarantino had pulled his finger out and bothered to release The Whole Bloody Affair in a way most of us could see, I might’ve bent my own rules and allowed that on. As it is, faced with Kill Bill possibly taking up two whole spots on my hotly-contested top 100, I opted to include just the first half. Back when the two parts came out, I might’ve made a case that Vol.2 was better. Perhaps it still is — but Vol.1 is certainly the more iconic.

Last year’s Hateful Eight seemed to provoke a lot of “my personal ranking of Tarantino films” posts, which just proved that everyone has a very different take on the ordering of his movies — Kill Bill came last in its fair share. It’s an interesting step in QT’s career, marking a shift from talky American crime dramas to wild genre homages. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction may be more innovative, but the style and shape of Bill is a herald for what was to come in Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. I like those two even more, but its appropriation of ’70s kung fu styles keeps Bill distinctive and largely enjoyable.

#49 will be… a Black comedy-mystery.