By David Mumpower
July 12, 2003
A commercial prior to the start of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen included the statement that some things are worse than death. How prophetic.
For those of you unfamiliar with the comic book, the concept is one for particularly literate pointy-headed intellectuals. The time is the end of the 19th century, and a multi-national strike force has been assembled to fight distinctly nasty baddies that seem to pop up from time to time. What's unusual about this particular justice squadron is that they are comprised of mythical book characters from various genres, all of whom are assumed to be quite alive and waging war against evil doers of the Victorian era.
The movie begins with a tank randomly running over a guy (ooh, evil!) on its way to robbing a bank. The people exiting the anachronistic weapon of war are dressed in German regalia, so the British see this act as one of national state aggression. Soon after, a fleet of German zeppelins is destroyed in what is assumed to be retaliation, so the two countries are placed squarely on the brink of war. It's not the assassination of an archduke or anything, but with tensions so high during this period of history, any justification at all is presumed to lead to global escalation. The hidden architect of this conflict-in-the-making, a mysterious being known only as The Phantom, must be stopped.
A British military official named M (no, not that one) decides to assemble an unusual assortment of crime-fighters in order to combat the standing impetus of world war. The linchpin of this group is to be legendary adventurer Allan Quatermain (Sean Connery), a national hero who has moved to Africa to hide from his past failures. He blames his home country for the death of his only son, so Allan has moved on to a new existence where he is at least slightly removed from his previous notoriety.
Also included is Mina Harker, who once waged a war against Dracula. For the purposes of LXG mythology, she's assumed to have lost a battle with the Count and gained his dark powers of damnation. For Hulk lovers, there's Dr. Jekyll and his more tortured half, Mr. Hyde. The character feels distinctly derivative coming so quickly on the heels of Ang Lee’s effort, but along with Harker, he’s what passes for entertaining in the film. The fact that he’s the poster child for knuckle scraping mouth breathers is a happy bonus. For her part, Peta Wilson’s portrayal of Harker is the closest thing to a salvation the movie offers. A film exclusively involving her character would have been a vastly superior endeavor.
The other players are Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend doing what he can with a poorly written role), the Invisible Man, Captain Nemo and Tom Sawyer (yes, I said Tom Sawyer). The Invisible Man is well-monikered as he disappears for long stretches of the film only to later describe in detail the cause of his absences. The lazy writing speaks volumes about how much import was given to a quality script, all the more shocking for such a literate comic book. Even worse, the moments in the film where Quatermain interacts with the Invisible Man sadly come across less as intended humorous flights of fancy and more as acts of senility from an elderly actor.
Nemo’s ship, the Nautilus, might as well be a co-star of the film as it is given as much screen time as Nemo himself. The character is a buccaneer who worships the Indian God of death, but his only task in the film other than transportation is to look colorful on camera. His overtly blue garb is intended to make for a nice visual, but I would have been far more satisfied if the character had been given similar attention to detail as his wardrobe.
As is the case with comic book movies with large casts (see: X-Men), there is innate difficulty in giving everyone an appropriate amount of time, so that members of the audience know who’s who; furthermore, it’s imperative in a situation such as this one, where the combined talents are so eclectic to give the viewer a blueprint of why we should care about the various entities. In The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, far too much is attempted, and I blame the direction of Stephen Norrington (Blade).
The concept of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is fertile with potential, yet the body of the film plays out as a kaleidoscope of ideas thrown together with no sense of purpose. No actual decisions have been made about which concepts to explore as opposed to which ones to dismiss. Instead, nothing seems to have been left on the cutting room floor, and the result is a surplus of possibilities for the storyline and the characters, none of which are anything more than vaguely explored. A choice needed to occur about whether the film should choose to be pretentiously intellectual or ridiculously over-the-top silly. The merging of those two attempts completely fails, and it should have been apparent after only a week of dailies. In a film fraught with disappointment, Norrington’s inadequacy stands out. I can almost understand why Connery decked him.
The writing is almost as dreadful as the direction. I was frequently left dumbfounded by the lack of cohesion in the script. With so many characters thrown together so randomly, any scribe would have difficulty keeping order amongst the entropic forces. Even allowing for that, the sheer randomness of the heel turns, story twists and “huge surprises” would make for a fine Screenwriting 101 diatribe on What Not To Do. I can’t go into detail without giving spoilers but the entirety of the film breaks down with just one revelation. It’s the cinematic equivalent of sticking a needle into a hot air balloon, and watching all of the previously assumed plot developments undone with one moment of idiocy.
How complete a disaster is The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen? Toward the end of the movie, I turned to my companion and said, "If you love me, you'll kill me." And I meant it. If you love to rubberneck at cinematic train wrecks, opportunities this rich don't come along very often.
Read what She Said.