The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen

on July 11, 2003 by Wade Major
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Way back in 1985, a young man named Stephen Norrington worked as part of the effects crew for Barry Levinson's "Young Sherlock Holmes," a well-intentioned but ultimately disastrous attempt to throw a pulpy new spin on one of English literature's most revered figures. Nearly 20 years later, that early experience clearly haunts Norrington, now an A-list action director best known for Wesley Snipes' "Blade." For his work on "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" not only retreads the very same mistakes as that earlier picture, it does so with bigger, clumsier feet.

The film's premise--inherited from the graphic novel by "From Hell" creator Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill--is promising: What if a handful of the most compelling Victorian literary icons were assembled to form a kind superhero team in an age before such things as superheroes existed? How might they get along? How would they complement one another? Would they bicker like X-Men or emulate the noble solidarity of the Justice League of America? Well, neither, really. Sometimes they bicker and sometimes they're noble, but mostly they just share screen space with an endless cavalcade of effects-driven action sequences and explosions. It's the standard Hollywood cop-out--when in doubt, plaster the screen with CGI and make everything explode.

Leading the brigade is aging explorer Allan Quatermain (Sean Connery), recruited by a mysterious Englishman identified cheekily as "M" (Richard Roxburgh) to rein in an even more mysterious villain whose plan for world domination consists of starting a "world war" and selling newfangled modern armaments to all sides. Quatermain is soon joined by Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah), Draculean vixen Mina Harker (Peta Wilson), ageless Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend), the Invisible Man (Tony Curran), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Jason Flemyng) and American Secret Service agent Sawyer (Shane West), whose first name is never officially identified as "Tom," though it's not a stretch to make the assumption. The picture deserves a modicum of credit for actually managing to establish some character relationships--mostly centering on the romantic history between Harker and Gray--but it takes so many liberties, both with the graphic novel and the original literary works, that it invariably winds up alienating all possible audiences. Imagine a Mr. Hyde who's more Hulk than the Hulk, Captain Nemo as a Hindu kung fu master and Dorian Gray as a well-mannered Wolverine and the problems become glaring. The anachronistic overkill is slightly less than that which consumed the feature film version of "The Wild Wild West," but not by much.

On the whole, it's a dilemma that should have occurred to the filmmakers long before they decided to waste untold tens of millions of dollars on such an ill-advised boondoggle: Those well-read enough to appreciate the concept will be utterly insulted by the approach. Those on whom the concept is lost aren't likely to even buy a ticket. And since most tickets for films of this sort are typically purchased by teenage boys with more interest in video games than books, the only reading with which anyone should have bothered was the writing on the wall. Starring Sean Connery, Naseeruddin Shah, Peta Wilson, Tony Curran, Shane West, Stuart Townsend, Jason Flemyng and Richard Roxburgh. Directed by Stephen Norrington. Written by James Dale Robinson. Produced by Don Murphy and Trevor Albert. A Fox release. Action. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of fantasy violence, language and innuendo. Running time: 115 min

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