The Avengers opened without benefit of screenings for reviewers, and the company line on the press blackout was that they didn't want the movie compared (unfavorably, one assumes) with the English TV series by which it was inspired. This begs the question, 'Why make a mega-bucks version of a cult TV show, retaining the original title and characters, if you don't want anyone to associate the two?' Hmmmmmmm.

In any event, the big-screen Avengers is a disaster. It's beautifully photographed and elaborately-if coldly-designed. But the plot is silly, the performances are dreadful, and the special effects pretty feeble by today's admittedly inflated standards.

A top-secret, high-tech military defense shield protecting the U.K. is deactivated, and the spy masters at the Ministry must figure out who's behind the act of sabotage and what larger inplications it has. The sticky aspect of the situation is that the chief suspect is also one of the designers of the secret Prospero Project, Dr. Emma Peel (Uma Thurman). So the Ministry calls upon one of its finest, Saville Row dandy John Steed (Ralph Fiennes), who wields a mean umbrella and can be trusted both to work with Mrs. Peel and keep an eye on her in case she turns out to be guilty. Together, they discover that Sir August De Wynter (Sean Connery), a Ministry alumnus who left under unfortunate circumstances, has perfected a method of worldwide climate control, and plans to force everyone to buy agreeable weather from him. Anyone who won't pay up can look forward to Christmas in July, tidal waves at New Year's, and a heat wave whenever it's least convenient.

If the performances and dialogue were up to snuff, the story's shortcomings wouldn't matter in the least. After all, the devotion of 'Avengers' fans wasn't won by brilliant plotting. It was-and is-inspired by the thoroughly delightful chemistry between the original Steed and Mrs. Peel, debonair Patrick Macnee and the peerless Diana Rigg: She looked as though she could ace any debate, checkmate you in record time, beat you up and still leave you wanting more. Fiennes, a tremendously talented actor under other circumstances, has no gift for insouciance: His Steed is pallid and listless. But it's Thurman's Emma Peel that makes you want to weep. She has the body to make a leather cat-suit sing, but her manner is brittle and overemphatic, like a tough girl trying to be posh. Neither is helped by the doltish dialogue, filled with crude and not in the least bit clever double-entendres. Connery gives easily one of the worst performances of his career, blustering and shouting and generally making a fool of himself. A brief appearance-in a manner of speaking-by Macnee is an oasis in this desert of mediocrity.

'Avengers' fans would do best to skip this blot on the memory of their beloved show and instead catch some old episodes on tape. Newcomers wondering what all the 'Avengers' fuss is about should do the same: The film is enough to make anyone think that 'Avengers' fans are all mad.

--Maitland McDonagh