Mark Reviews Movies


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Stephen Norrington

Cast: Sean Connery, Shane West, Naseeruddin Shah, Peta Wilson, Stuart Townsend, Tony Curran, Jason Flemyng, Richard Roxburgh

MPAA Rating:  (for intense scenes of fantasy violence, language and innuendo)

Running Time: 1:50

Release Date: 7/11/03

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Review by Mark Dujsik

I would probably intensely dislike The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen if not for the fact that I'm so greatly amused by it. Here's a concept: a group of literary characters from works of the nineteenth century join forces to stop a deranged, disfigured villain from starting a world war. The idea comes from a graphic novel by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill, and for that medium, it's probably accepted without a second glance. After all, even with the pictures, graphic novels are still technically literature, but how does one sell this concept to a studio? Without the sudden surge in popularity of comic book movies, I highly doubt this movie would ever see the light of day. It arrives as a big summer action flick—the type whose target audience has probably never read any of the books from which these characters originate. I wonder: Does the ordinary moviegoer nowadays know who Dorian Gray is? The movie, thankfully, doesn't care, but it does have the problem of taking this rather posh concept (in terms of action escapism, of course) and turning it into lowbrow claptrap—naïvely amusing claptrap, yes, but claptrap nonetheless.

The year is 1899.  The world is at the brink of war. A villain called "The Fantom" has been terrorizing nations, hoping to make a fortune in the impending arms race. To avert the crisis, the British government recruits the help of famous adventurer Allan Quartermain (Sean Connery), now living in Africa to hide from inquisitive minds. He's given up the life of a patriot after the death of his son, but he doesn't want to see the potential war spreading to his new homeland. Back in England, Quartermain meets M (Richard Roxburgh) (Bond, anyone?), an intelligence agent who has started to assemble some of the world's most unique individuals to stop the threat of war. There's Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah), a famous inventor and infamous pirate, Mina Harker (Peta Wilson), a widow whose husband had a run-in with Count Dracula, Rodney Skinner (Tony Curran), who discovered a dead scientist's formula for invisibility, Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend), a man who looks exactly the same with each passing year, Tom Sawyer (Shane West, bad choice), an American Secret Service agent, and Dr. Henry Jekyll (Jason Flemyng), whose alter ego Mr. Edward Hyde has been causing problems in Paris. Once this League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comes together, it's off to Venice where the next stage of the evil mastermind's plan is underway.

Looking at this line of characters incites a strange battle between the left and right brain. The left brain looks and sees inconsistencies in the way the characters are presented here and the way their original authors intended; the right brain just smiles. Screenwriter James Robinson and Moore and O'Neill take dramatic licenses that should send Bram Stoker, Robert Louis Stevenson, H. Rider Haggard, H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Mark Twain, and Oscar Wilde spinning in their respective graves. Then again, maybe they'd be happy someone remembered their literary creations in our world of pop culture infusion and saturation. Other than the time period in which the works were written, there's little rhyme or reason to this eclectic literary mix when you think about. There's no way to place these novels in a genre that encompasses them all, but here they are. At least half of them have to return from the grave to take part in the mission, but there's little to no faithfulness to the source materials anyway. Mr. Hyde can consciously decide to do good (so much for the abandonment of the superego that makes him a completely id-driven character). The Nautilus is a huge ship that is somehow able to maneuver down the canals of Venice (one character says the ship cannot go any father, only to go much farther later). Dorian Gray doesn't age but that hardly makes him invincible. And wouldn't he be too prissy to be a superhero?

These things, I can overlook. After all, this world is of Moore and O'Neill's making, and they can make whatever alterations they see fit. The problem is the story itself, which forces these characters into loud, repetitive, sometimes incoherent action sequences. The city of Venice crumbling in domino-like fashion is the movie's unfortunate centerpiece and an appropriate measure of the style of the rest of the action scenes. They're marked by huge fights and spectacles of destruction assembled with rapid-fire editing and, when necessary, substandard special effects. The effects, oddly, work nonetheless, primarily because the look of the film calls for something unrealistic. Unfortunately, they serve pretty boring action. Take the Venice sequence, which has a lot going on although none of it particularly makes sense. Buildings are falling, Quartermain and Sawyer are speeding down the streets in a car (impressively of today's performance standards), Mina is fighting off countless henchmen, and Nemo is waiting to fire a rocket into a building to stop the toppling. No time is taken to flesh out any specific element, and so it all turns out jumbled.

The same happens in the finale, when the characters are paired off to tackle different obstacles, but by that time, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has become the stuff of routine. There is one moment late in the movie that revives the amusement of the premise when the villain's true identity is revealed. I will leave it a secret, because it comes as such a nice reward after seeing the premise turn sour.

Copyright © 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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