Everything seems second-hand in “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”–not merely the collection of nineteenth-century fictional figures (Allan Quatermain, Captain Nemo, Mina Harker from “Dracula,” an invisible man here called Rodney Skinner, Dorian Gray, Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde and Tom Sawyer) brought together as a sort of late-Victorian Justice League (or, for totally contemporary readers, a hundred-year-old version of the X-Men), but also the plot, which resembles one of Conan Doyle’s lesser potboilers about a maniacal criminal’s effort to take over the world (Sherlock Holmes doesn’t himself appear, but the narrative turns on a twist that comes directly from his mythology). That might not matter if the concept were carried off with some tongue-in-cheek panache, but Stephen Norrington’s picture is for the most part dour and dull, lacking even the most basic virtue of coherence; and despite the fact that it must have cost a bundle, visually it’s no great shakes, either.
All of which is rather surprising, since the director did a pretty skillful job translating another comic book (or, to use the euphemism applied to remarkably expensive comics, graphic novel) to the screen with the 1998 vampire-fighter tale “Blade.” There are rumors that “League” had a troubled shoot, with Norrington and star Sean Connery (who also served as one of the executive producers) not seeing eye to eye. Whether or not that’s the cause, the final product is a clumsy, charmless pastiche of nineteenth-century escapist tales told with twenty-first century technology and attitude–arch, muddled and bereft of characters one can care about in the slightest. The movie comes across as an unwise attempt to dramatize something that would probably have been better left on the printed page.
Set in 1899, it begins with a prologue about a mysterious, deformed villain called the Phantom, who’s busily fomenting a war between the British and German Empires by framing each for attacks on the other. An equally mysterious British official called, with a nod to Connery’s modern franchise, “M” (Richard Roxburgh) recruits some of the “special” people of the period to foil the plot. There’s Quatermain (Connery), the aging African adventurer, and Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah), the brilliant scientist whose underwater vessel, the Nautilus, will provide transport. This reasonably ordinary pair is joined by vampiress Harker (Peta Wilson); the hard-to-see invisible man (Tony Curran), in this telling a thief named Rodney Skinner who stole the late Dr. Griffin’s famous formula; the ageless and invulnerable Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend); and changeling Dr. Henry Jekyll (Jason Flemyng) and his alter-ego, the brutish Hyde. Almost at once another member is added to the crew: dashing American agent Tom Sawyer (Shane West), who quickly becomes a surrogate son to Quatermain (who, in a bit of background information designed to explain his initial reluctance to rouse himself from retirement and his ongoing sense of despair, is haunted by the death of his own boy in an earlier adventure).
It doesn’t take long for the team to wend their way to Venice, where the Phantom intends to bomb a diplomatic conference designed to defuse the international crisis. In one of the picture’s more extravagant action sequences–though, unhappily, also the most confused and poorly staged–they confront their foe; but treachery rears its ugly head and forces them to pursue him to his lair, a huge munitions factory where the Phantom craftily plans to use the powers of his very pursuers in his effort to construct a new generation of super-warriors. A variety of revelations and reversals are involved in all this, but it wouldn’t be fair to reveal what even a clunker like this one has up its sleeve. Suffice it to say that the piece ends in a very conventional way, with several intercut confrontations between individual League members and a variety of bad-guys (to some of whom we’ve barely been introduced). It’s a tiresomely predictable finale.
The premise of “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” to be perfectly honest, is one of those ideas that’s clever enough in a juvenile way, but quickly comes to seem contrived and precious in the telling, particularly when played as smugly as here. Connery seems vaguely disinterested in the proceedings, and unhappily looks rather long in the tooth for the sort of action required of him (a fact accentuated by the poorly concealed shots when he’s replaced by a stunt double). But at least he retains some of the old charisma; the younger cast members offer virtually none. Shah makes a rigid, rather boring Nemo, depicted here as a turbaned Hindu, and Curran tries much too hard to act the charming rogue (the “invisibility” effects, moreover, aren’t much of an improvement on those in James Whale’s 1933 version of the H.G. Welles original). Even Shah and Curran come off better than Wilson and Townsend, though; they’re both attractive people, very well coiffed, under Norrington’s guidance they slink about like amateurish extras in a production of a lesser Noel Coward play. Jason Flemyng is surprisingly anonymous as the nervous Jekyll, but what really sinks him is the miserable rethinking of the Hyde persona, who’s turned into a big CGI effect along the lines of “The Hulk” but much inferior to it. Roxburgh is broad as the horizon as M, who’s both more and less than he initially seems, and West is your standard-issue arrogant young buck as Sawyer. As in the “X-Men” series, moreover, there are simply too many semi-heroic characters running around here; it’s hard for even the best of them to make more than a passing impression.
Even visually the picture never catches fire. The production is certainly a large one, but the big exterior settings inspire no awe: the turn-of-the-century London on display looks pretty much like the one we last saw in “From Hell” (and in something as distant as 1979’s “Murder by Decree”), and the Venetian sequences appear to include a good deal of lower-grade model work when buildings collapse. As far as the Nautilus and the other modernistic machines are concerned (including the Phantom’s huge factory in the last act), they rather resemble the stuff one can see in a mediocre effort like the “The Secret Adventures of Jules Verve” series periodically to be found on the SciFi Network; and Trevor Jones’s score has a phoned-in feel. In all these areas, the movie seems derivative and familiar, too.
In fact, when one gets right down to it, whatever the title might suggest, there’s nothing at all extraordinary about this “League.” Happily, all the original books featuring these characters are still widely available–and immensely enjoyable. Many of the earlier movies adapted from them will provide lots of fun as well–certainly much more than this laborious misfire is likely to do.
A final point. One wonders, in this era of heart-on-sleeve patriotism and gung-ho bellicosity in America, how audiences here will take to the notion of Quatermain, as representative of the British empire, effectively passing the imperialistic torch over to young Sawyer in the picture’s final reel. Even if a viewer applauds that touch–indeed, especially if he does–how might he react to Quatermain’s initial characterization of Sawyer as typically American in being rash and headstrong, recklessly pouring a volley of bullets in the direction of a target rather than waiting patiently for the right moment and dispatching a foe with a single shot? It’s possible to take these observations as an implicit criticism of current U.S. policy, even if they’re intended as harmless period jibes. Of course, the target audience for mindless stuff like this probably won’t consider such matters at all. At least the producers had better hope so. In Europe, on the other hand, perhaps viewers will cheer. Especially in France.