WFTB Score: 3/20
The plot: 1899, and a mysterious figure called ‘The Fantom’ provokes Britain and Germany to the brink of war. ‘M’ persuades renowned adventurer Allan Quatermain to gather a fighting force to defeat the Fantom, though once the strange band of brothers (plus a sister) is assembled, it’s not entirely clear whether the greater threat comes from without or within.
The 20th Century is just around the corner, and seems destined to start with war when the Bank of England is raided by German-looking tanks, while Germany’s airships are apparently targeted by the British in revenge. Far from the madding crowd in Africa, legendary explorer Allan Quatermain (Sean Connery), is reluctantly – and somewhat violently – persuaded to return to London to hear a plea by the mysterious ‘M’ (Richard Roxburgh) for assistance in stopping the shadowy Fantom from fomenting a World War, with help from some gifted accomplices: highly inventive Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah), sharp Mina Harker (Peta Wilson), late of Dracula fame, and invisible man Rodney Skinner (Tony Curran). Avoiding the Fantom’s attempts to bump them off, they pick up seemingly immortal playboy Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend) and American agent Tom Sawyer (Shane West) before travelling in Nemo’s amazing submarine Nautilus and snagging Jason Flemyng’s Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde in Paris. Although the league’s first mission is to foil the Fantom’s plot to assassinate world leaders in Venice, Gray suspects there’s a traitor in their midsts – and he’s dead right.
I was all set to start this review by saying that I’d been a little unkind to George Lucas and his Star Wars prequels, since he – unlike anyone involved in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – at least had some idea of how to structure a story so it had a beginning, middle and end, or frame a fight scene so you vaguely know what’s going on*. But then, as soon as I started Googling “Steven Norrington” I was alerted to the fact that the shooting of the movie was an incredibly fractious affair, plagued by (amongst other things) weather problems and an awful relationship between Norrington and his venerable star.
And boy, does it show. Everything I can tell you about the Alan Moore/Kevin O’Neill comic books is gleaned from Wikipedia, but in essence there’s a fairly neat idea behind The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: instead of superheroes coming from outer space, or badly-managed science labs, they’re pulled from the pages of Victorian literature and, with little tweaks, let loose in their own era. However, the translation from page to screen is nothing short of horrendous in almost every department**. The dialogue is a procession of signposts to and reminders of a perfunctory plot which contains its fair share of holes or, if you’re being kind, quirks (not to give the whole game away, but if the villain’s plan depends on Quatermain’s survival, why do they keep trying to kill him? And how come Skinner’s naked in the middle of Mongolia – location of the bad guy’s warmongering lair – but has his glasses, make-up and a fitted coat in the next scene?).
But hey, this is an action movie, right? None of that highfalutin film stuff matters if the action gets the blood pumping. Unfortunately, my blood ran cold at most of ‘LXG’, for the very simple reason that the visuals very often made no sense whatsoever. Take, for example, Nemo’s sub Nautilus: an enormous, towering craft, it seems highly improbable that it would fit in the depths of the Pacific Ocean, let alone an East London dock; and then it cruises up a Venetian canal! Speaking of Venice, the film’s big mid-point set-piece is a race to stop the destruction of Venice by stopping a ‘domino effect’ of tumbling buildings (eh?). The whole thing’s a frantic mess that goes on for several minutes, with endless buildings crumbling into the canals; but Quatermain has the cheek to tell the Fantom ‘Venice still stands!’ Nemo’s fancy car doesn’t work either, since it shoehorns an anachronistic ersatz Batmobile into the end of the nineteenth century, entirely misunderstanding the point of steampunk. Literally none of the action scenes have the desired effect, the shaky camerawork and confusingly quick cutting (to hide stuntmen?) married to visual effects which were substandard back in 2003 and look very ropey now.
Then, of course, there’s that spat I mentioned. Connery’s influence on the picture goes beyond irritating the director; his own performance lacks verve or humour, despite (or maybe because of) the lumpen James Bond references to make him feel at home – and what is the plot but a riff on any number of Bond films where a megalomaniac puts superpowers at each others’ throats? Furthermore, Connery’s exorbitant salary limited the scope for talent elsewhere; the Quatermain/Sawyer relationship is meant to be the heart of the tale (he lost his own son, don’t you know), but Shane West is such a wet blanket that he completely fails to elicit our sympathies. The others are perfectly fine without ever threatening to be interesting, though Townsend makes Gray’s immorality attractively suave and Flemyng copes manfully with his poorly-written dual role.
I try not to arrive at snap judgements about movies and watched The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen hoping to find more in it than I had on a first viewing several years ago; but there really is no redeeming something so thoroughly misjudged from start to silly finish. Like Jackie Chan’s misbegotten Tuxedo, this will do a job if you’ve never seen a film in the genre before. Just be aware that nearly every other like-minded movie – even the similarly literature-mangling Van Helsing – does a much better one.
1 Though dialogue, kids, Gungans, running length etc. contribute to a pretty long debit column.
2 Consider that (so I read) Mina was a brave survivor in the comic book, not a vampiress, and that “Agent” Sawyer was invented purely to get American asses on seats, and you’ll have some idea what kind of altruistic, artistic-minded creatives some studio bosses are.