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The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen   D

20th Century Fox

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Stephen Norrington
Writer: James Robinson (based on the comics by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill)
Cast: Sean Connery, Peta Wilson, Naseeruddin Shah, Stuart Townsend, Tony Curran, Jason Flemyng, Shane West, Richard Roxburgh.

Review by Rob Vaux

Here we have a curious creature indeed. Eager to exploit the now-lucrative comic book adaptation biz, 20th Century Fox has snapped up The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a little-known cult piece by the brilliant messrs Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill. Their work presented the ongoing adventures of a band of Victorian freaks: the collected heroes and villains of half a dozen classic novels, rendered in a rollicking swashbuckler style that paid homage to their pulp roots. The comics were full of wit and humor and wonderful surprises on every page. The movie, unfortunately, is full of something else. In an effort to convey the grandiosity of O'Neill's images, LXG (as it is glibly referred to) sacrifices the intelligence of Moore's words, bloating the budget to monstrous extremes and replacing the urbane satire with dull-as-dishwater set pieces. It suffers from a terminal case of the Dumbs, loading the action down with turgid explanations while blandly pounding us with listless explosions. It's the sort of film which, having rendered Mr. Hyde as a supremely threatening simian brute, can think of nothing better to do with him than throw him against an identical brute several sizes larger.

Not even Sean Connery, fitting the role of aging adventurer Allan Quartermain like a snakeskin glove, can give life to the mess surrounding him. Director Stephen Norrington has too much to handle and too little flexibility in how he handles it. The large number of characters (at least two more than the comic books) is part of the problem. In addition to Quartermain, their ranks include Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah), scourge of giant octopi everywhere; Rodney Skinner (Tony Curran), the latest version of the Invisible Man; Special Agent Tom Sawyer (Shane West) of the U.S. Secret Service; Dr. Henry Jekyll (Jason Flemyng) and his more temperamental alter ego; Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend), whose portrait reveals more than he cares to show; and Mina Harker (Peta Wilson), former seductee of the world's most infamous Transylvanian. That's a lot to cover, and without a more elegant framework, Norrington is forced to cram them crudely into what structure he has. Assembled by the mysterious "M" (Richard Roxburgh, whose character gives Connery a lovely Bondian nod) to combat a looming threat, they're trundled out with ungainly speed, then set loose after a series of awkward introductions. It's a fatal stratagem. The central premise depends largely on letting these figures do their thing, and trusting us to piece their identities together. The joy comes from our chuckling revelations as we figure each one out. LXG, however, is so terrified we might not understand it, that it forgets what attracted us in the first place. It pounds each character's literary background into our heads in the most blatant and obvious manner, robbing the scenario of its spice. If we have to stop and be told who Mrs. Harker is and why she never takes her scarf off, then the cleverness of her presence is lost.

Instead, LXG falls back on the old standby of relentless action and loud explosions. But here too, it misses the mark, as the set pieces founder beneath bad timing and semi-cohesion. Norrington has a terminal need to gild the lily -- pausing to show us unnecessary details, adding extraneous bangs after the scene is essentially completed, and displaying little sense of imagination with all his toys and trappings. The effects are first-rate (Nemo's ship the Nautilus is a favored subject), but the film is too enamored of their merest presence to do anything interesting with them.

Comic books have developed into a rich and diverse medium, as complicated as any that yet exist. Films like Ghost World and From Hell demonstrate that the art form's more esoteric extremes can be adapted properly. But they can't all fit into the summer movie mold, and they can't all become cash machines just because the studio really, really wants them to. The subject matter of LXG demands an intelligent approach, requiring far more than the talents here are willing (or able) to give. You simply can't marry such a literary conceit with the simplistic needs of an event picture. In their attempts to make it appealing to the widest possible audience, Fox destroys what made The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen so distinctive... and gives us absolutely nothing in return. If it looks like an apple, smells like an apple and tastes like an apple, don't try turning it into an orange. All you'll get is a big wet mess.

Review published 07.10.2003.

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