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The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)

Directed by Stephen Norrington

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

I would like to state my respect for a film that brings to the screen a variety of 19th century literary characters that were created by a diverse selection of authors that have been retro-fitted into a team of super-heros for our modern sensibilities. I’d like to salute the concept and the hope that this exposure could benefit the actual books upon which the characters were based. I’d really like to do this, and more... but I can’t.

I fall as short in my praise of this endeavor as the film-makers did in their execution of it. "LXG" was "loosely based" upon the "graphic novel" (ie: comic book) of the same name, which had been created by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill. Ironically, the film is more of a comic book than the comic book was!

OK—I won’t get into that. I won’t harp on that the (comic) book was better than the movie. It’s a different art form and that’s not fair to the film-makers. They weren’t fair to us, though, and I feel cheated by sloppy and inconsistent special-effects, a zig-zag plot and a "mastermind" villain that seems to keep changing his mind. He seems to want a "World War" so that he can be an arms dealer, but his wealth seems pretty vast from the start. He also seems to want to "clone" the "LXG" (!?), selling their abilities to the highest bidder.

The whole concept (cool as it is) of each "LXG" member being unique and more evil than good, gets thrown to the wind and totally negated by the film’s third act. Apparently, Dr. Jekyll’s formula could be consumed by anyone with monstrous results. Invisible men can be made and un-made. Captain Nemo’s brilliance can be reproduced by a few snapshots from his rather sparse control-room (which itself is a point of contention, as the Fantom villain seems better handled at creating mechanisms of mass destruction—why a need to steal Nemo’s knowledge?).

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

I’m still not so sure what made Dracula’s victim Mina Harker so unique—In a world where vampirism exists, wouldn’t she just be yet another vampire? Her "immortality" seems matched by that of Dorian Gray’s—the decadent, ageless dandy granted immortality by a "magic" painting. Harker’s form of vampirism rings more of "Blade" than "Nosferatu".

Speaking of "Blade", director Stephen Norrington helmed that film as well. "Blade" was fun, though, so I’m not so quick to point the finger of blame at him for "LXG", but I guess I have to. He had some well-publicized fights with "LXG" star Sean Connery during a plagued production that 20th Century Fox seems to have decided to cut its losses on.

Casting Sean Connery in the role of Alan Quatermain was probably the lynch-pin in getting this thing made. It was also probably the kiss of death. The original material upon which it was based (the comic) had Quartermain as an opium-addicted has-been, reluctantly recruited by team-leader Mina Harker. With Connery on board, his character took charge of the team and was cleaned up—making him even more of a misfit in a band of freaks since he was now just a good-natured old hunter and father figure to "secret agent from America" Tom Sawyer (Shane West).

The plot (or rather "storyline", as the word "plot" is a bit complimentary in this case) concerns the assembly of the League, followed by a barrage of so many red-herrings that it was difficult to determine (even in the end) which were supposed to matter to the audience. After saving (or destroying—so many unconvincing miniatures blew up, I wasn’t quite sure!) Venice, they’re off to fight a super-battle in a hidden fortress in Mongolia.

Richard Roxburgh is also on hand, trying to "butch" up his image from the evil dandy that he portrayed in "Moulin Rouge". He fails miserably, though, repeatedly getting his ass whooped by 72 year-old Connery.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

My complaints are many, but a few of the biggest offenses involve the often lackluster visuals. The Venice scenes were the worst—throw-away shots of miniatures that you expected "Godzilla" to romp through, pointless shots of crowds ("Oh, it’s carnival time," one character remarks as they enter port), and a senseless and chaotic battle. Why in the world would a master-villain set-up a gauntlet of which he is part, in the middle of a city in which he is in the process of blowing up? Merely to confront Connery mano-o-mano upon his failure, I guess, and bring to light some treachery and deceit that muddled the storyline even more.

Another irksome element was the Nautilus, Captain Nemo’s (Naseeruddin Shah) submarine and main mode of transport for the "LXG". It’s bad enough that it looked fake in most shots, but when we first see it off of the London docks, it’s as big as the Titanic. Off of the Paris docks, it’s a bit stealthier. In Venice, it shrinks even more, maneuvering through the canals until it can "go no further." It brought to mind the recent "Godzilla" re-make, in which when he stands up in the water off of Manhattan he causes a tidal wave, yet he can swiftly sneak around tunnels under the city, undetected!

All in all, much of the production reminded me of a made for TV movie, or the short-lived Sci-Fi series "The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne"—but at least they knew not to reach so far beyond their visual means.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

A personally bitter moment came upon the very disappointing revelation of Dorian Gray’s portrait and his successive demise. As a Dorian Gray "enthusiast", it was an insult to me—an anger-inspiring travesty that made little sense and looked AWFUL to boot. Stuart Townsend was well cast, but the acting was not at fault.

There was so much potential and missed opportunities in "LXG", that it really saddens me. I love the period of time, the literature, the costumes... and I really wanted to like this film. There were things that I did like, though—so pulling my own "Jekyll and Hyde", here they are... Mr. Hyde, as admittedly rubber as his look was, had a unique weirdness that worked for me. The Jekyll/Hyde split personality was a bit too contrived to be as successful as, say, the split personality of Gollum from The "Lord of the Rings", but Jason Flemyng pulled it off. The Invisible Man concept/effects were actually stunning! Tony Curran’s pasty, partially made-up face, slick black coat and wide-brimmed hat reeked of brilliance from its design. Mina Harker’s sudden savage bursts into a vampiric frenzy were just as cool as her leather attire. Monica Bellucci was originally slated for the role, but Peta Wilson fills in nicely.

The London alleys, the Paris docks, and Dorian Gray’s library were all great set-pieces and visuals. There were lot of production-design details, courtesy of Carol Spier, that make me morbidly curious to check out the "LXG" DVD when it arrives, assuming that it addresses those areas in its extras. The effects were inconsistent, and saying that, some were quite good. A director commentary wouldn’t be bad either, perhaps shedding some light on how such a cool idea was made to suck so much. ($6.00 Rating -- or a big lunch at McDonald’s)

George Higham - copyright 2003

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