Film Reviews: Wednesday, July 09, 2003
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
Starring Sean Connery. Directed by Stephen Norrington. Written by James Dale Robinson, based on Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s comic books. Rated PG-13.
Finding Nemo...

...and Dr. Jekyll, Tom Sawyer, and others in a league of 19th-century superheroes.


Turning to this week’s other big Hollywood action-adventure film: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is smarter, more layered, and more high-minded than Pirates of the Caribbean. It isn’t nearly as much fun, though. The movie, based on Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s graphic novels, features a group of characters from 19th-century adventure books who band together to fight crime. As any filmmaker tackling a league of superheroes knows, you always need to introduce each character and his or her powers in turn. The director here is Stephen Norrington (Blade), who knows his way around a comic book adaptation and gives his films a distinctive look. However, he can’t find a way around the long stretches of static exposition in his movie’s early going.

That helps explain why the movie doesn’t play as well as it should, given the dramatic potential of the characters here. It begins with Allan Quatermain (Sean Connery) being coaxed out of retirement in Africa by M (Richard Roxburgh, much more understated than he was in Moulin Rouge), an official in Her Majesty’s government, who’s presumably a predecessor to James Bond’s boss. The explorer is soon brought into contact with Captain Nemo (Monsoon Wedding’s Naseeruddin Shah); Dr. Jekyll (Jason Flemyng); Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend); Mina Harker (Peta Wilson), turned into a vampire from her battle with Count Dracula; Tom Sawyer (Shane West), now grown-up and a U.S. Secret Service agent; and a professional thief (Tony Curran) who stole the Invisible Man’s formula. They’ve been recruited to thwart a criminal overlord who wants to start a world war by attacking a conference of European leaders in Venice.

What’s interesting about this team is that almost all of them are shady characters to some degree, so when it turns out that the group has a traitor in its midst, there’s real doubt as to who it might be. The League’s strengths also become apparent in the first action scene, where they’re attacked in Gray’s library. The Indian Nemo wheels and dispatches the bad guys with a sword in each hand, while the decadent dandy Gray elegantly swings his cane and blithely ignores the bullets hitting him. Too many action filmmakers don’t realize that fight sequences can reveal character just as well as or even better than conversation. It’s a shame that Norrington and company make the same mistake, with too much material wasted on trite stuff about Quatermain feeling his age, Jekyll’s ongoing struggle to keep down Mr. Hyde, and Gray’s past with Harker.

The film does offer some fun visuals — the automatic guns and the team’s ahead-of-the-century car look the way those machines might conceivably have looked if they had been designed by scientists in 1899. There are a few witty touches, too, as when Harker sucks a bad guy’s blood and then carefully checks her makeup in a mirror. Still, these don’t lighten the movie’s unceasing grimness, and Norrington’s proficiency is offset by the fact that he’s overly intent on bringing the film to its logical (so to speak) conclusion. By contrast, Bryan Singer’s approach to the X-Men movies allows for much more humor and is always informed by the sense of an entire fantasy world that these characters are part of. If the filmmakers had only lightened up a bit and let the movie breathe, then this League might have been truly extraordinary.

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