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In an alternate Victorian Age world, a group of famous contemporary fantasy, SF and adventure characters team up on a secret mission.
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On the micro level, “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” is a colossal success. It’s a film filled with fast and furious action sequences, richly designed and crisply photographed, featuring unique interpretations of some of the most beloved icons of classic literature as embodied by a largely engaging cast. But on the macro level, when it attempts to tell a coherent and thought-out story, the film is pretty much a failure, one made all the more disappointing by an intriguing first hour and by familiarity with the picture’s genuinely inspired source material.
That source is a series of graphic novels written by the mercurial comics genius Alan Moore (the illustrator is Kevin J. O’Neill) that re-imagine the heroes of Victorian genre fiction as the world’s first superhero team. In these comics, former vampire victim Mina Harker leads African adventurer / over-the-hill opium addict Allan Quatermain, psychotic invisible man Hawley Griffin, ruthless Indian pirate Captain Nemo, and tormented split personality Henry Jekyll against old-world villains like Professor Moriarty and the Martians of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds”. These stories, while chock-full of the color and action of their original source novels, use their characters’ troubled pasts and present neuroses to engage in probing commentary on the dark realities often lurking beneath the fanciful exteriors of Victorian escapism. In their way, they are as definitive a deconstruction of classic pulp literature as Moore’s acclaimed “Watchmen” was of the superhero genre.
Naturally, Hollywood’s first step in adapting “League” for the screen (the film’s script is by James Dale Robinson) is to largely remove the angst and torment from these characters, stripping away the lion’s share of their very human complexities and rendering them more readily accessible heroic archetypes. The second step is to shunt Mina Harker into a supporting role and make the more conventionally action-heroic Quatermain the group’s leader (incidentally, his name is also changed to the more tongue-pleasing Quartermain). Not a surprising move, really, when you have the venerable Sean Connery cast as the bwana with the dead-eye aim. Quartermain is tracked down in 1899 Kenya by the British government after a series of mysterious robberies and sabotage missions threatens to bring the great powers of Europe into a seething international conflict…a world war. The African warrior reluctantly agrees to head up a team of “singular individuals” to track down the supposed culprit behind these crimes, a mysterious masked figure known only as the Fantom (“How operatic”, quips Quartermain) whose true plans involve harnessing the unique skills and powers of the League to create an army of super-soldiers that will, you guessed it, take over the world.
The other members of the League are more problematic. Peta Wilson is a bit lost in the shuffle as Mina, ill-served by her character’s relegation to background status, and there’s more trouble still with the two characters added to the League for the film. Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, re-imagined as a virtual immortal impervious to pain, is transformed by Stuart Townsend into a campy fop, and Shane West is adrift as U.S. Special Agent Tom Sawyer, a sharpshooting country boy who forges an insufficiently explored surrogate-son relationship with mourning father Quartermain. The producers have fully admitted that Sawyer was shoehorned into the film so American audiences would find the picture more relatable, but it’s an awkward fit, presenting a Sawyer who will be unfamiliar even to those conversant with such later, lesser Twain adventures as “Tom Sawyer, Detective”. Really, we can blame the American literary tradition for this problem, as the country’s 19th century pulp literature didn’t create any characters with the enduring power of its European contemporaries.
So we’re facing problems even before the film moves into its second hour, where all of Robinson’s thoughtful character touches and intriguing interplay are basically cast aside in favor of turning the picture into just another borderline-incoherent action bash. Granted, there are such scenes earlier in the film (a shootout in Gray’s library is particularly frantic), but in the back half, that’s all there is. There’s a chaotic car chase through the streets of Venice, a sequence that took up the bulk of Roger Ebert’s vicious pan of the film, which condemned the scene’s very concept because there are no streets in the famously canal-linked city. The Nautilus, Nemo’s legendary submarine, is bombed by the Fantom’s minions, and it all culminates in a drawn-out final sequence at the Fantom’s hideout in the frozen steppes of Mongolia, where the League come face to face with their evil mirror images, doing battle with knife-wielding invisible maniacs and Hyde-monsters on steroids.
Honestly, all of this, while you’re in the moment, is tremendously exciting stuff. Director Stephen Norrington (“Blade”) skillfully choreographs the action and special effects set pieces, and the picture looks stunning, with rich, dark cinematography by Dan Laustsen, evocative art direction by Carol Spier, and classy costumes by Jacqueline West. But Paul Rubell’s editing mashes the action scenes into whitter-quick craziness the eye can barely track, and the deafening sound mix is so overpowering that one of the film’s finest elements, the moody and thunderous score by action veteran Trevor Jones, is virtually obliterated (I recommend picking up the soundtrack, which is only available from the Varese Sarabande website or on iTunes). Plus, as one watches some of the greatest figures of classic literature reduced to summer action marionettes, it’s hard not to feel a sense of lost opportunity emanating from the screen. The concept of uniting these mismatched misfits into a coherent force was so skillfully pulled off by Moore and O’Neill, so suffused with metaphor for the human need for community in the face of interpersonal incompatibility and geopolitical chaos. As the film transforms into just another boisterous blockbuster, one can almost feel the poisonous groupthink of studio fatcats kicking in, stifling the intriguing elements of Robinson’s original script and replacing them with sound and fury, signifying nothing.
“The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” was a notoriously troubled production with dramatic fallout for several of its participants. Norrington found the making of the film so traumatic that he has vowed never to direct another feature, and Connery was so irritated by the process and by his contentious relationship with Norrington that he announced his retirement from acting shortly after the film’s largely unsuccessful release.
Meanwhile, “League” creator Moore was so unhappy with the film’s interpretation of his concept that he announced he would remove his name from all future film adaptations of his work (a vow that he has kept on the subsequent releases of “V for Vendetta” and “Watchmen”). Still, for a film with so many problems, there is something about “League” that keeps me coming back to enjoy its bombast and bloated Hollywood excess. It has strangely become my cinematic equivalent of comfort food; it’s usually the movie I throw into the DVD player when I’m home sick and in need of something entertaining and intellectually undemanding to distract me from my discomforts. As a movie, I fully concede that this picture really doesn’t work, but as a mindless entertainment, well, if you’ve got to rape classic literature, I guess this is the way to rape it.