“The League of Extraordinary Gentleman” is a great concept. Taking the energy and promise of a time of great change –the late 1800’s— as a base, adding the flavorings of a mystery in the style of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, and introducing the most famous (and infamous) of the Victorian era’s fictional heroes, the story has all the ingredients of a thumping good tale. You wouldn’t think it possible, but somewhere on the way to the table the rich, promising feast of “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” transformed into the disappointing gruel of “LXG”.
By collecting many of the iconic adventurers from 19th century English literature in a “League” imbued with the task of protecting England, comic book creators, Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, produced an extremely entertaining, albeit at times grisly, series that owes much to the “penny dreadfuls” (early British pulp fiction) and to the meatier fare of adventure literature including the likes of Jules Verne. The movie takes the graphic novel as a start, drains it of its quirky, prim Victorian tone, recreates the characters to be more appealing to the Hollywood palate, and leaves the audience on their own to find something to like in the end the result.
The plot is fairly straightforward. Mysterious “M” (thought by the comic book characters to be Sherlock Holmes’ older brother, Mycroft Holmes) recruits individuals with special abilities to protect England from a master criminal. These individuals are harvested from the writings of a rich crop of authors from H.G. Wells’ “Invisible Man” to Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”. Where vampire hunter, Mina Harker (Peta Wilson), is the leader of this band of “gentlemen” in the graphic novel, great white hunter, Allen Quartermain (Sean Connery) is given the task in the movie. The group –once assembled— track the mysterious “Phantom”, a man who looks like a cross between Genghis Khan and the Phantom of the Opera, to stop him before he can realize his goal of starting a global war.
It is the ‘extras’ that make this “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” so very ordinary. Director Stephen Norrington, best known for his vampire movie “Blade” (1998), and writer, James Dale Robinson, throw in unnecessary tweaks and additions, creating an olla podrida disappointing in its muddy flavor. For example, the introduction of Tom Sawyer (a completely uninteresting Shane West) to the cast does nothing besides adding an American to the broth and violating the original concept of a gathering of Victorian anti-heroes. In other instances of pandering to the imagined tastes of the American audience, Mina Harker is made into a powerful vampire who violates all the “rules” of the genre. As any fan of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” will tell you, vampires (at least in the movies) do not tan well nor should they be able to use mirrors. Also, the terse swordsman, Captain Nemo (a fierce Naseeruddin Shah) is gifted with impressive martial arts skills here, lest anyone think him wimpy for not using guns.
By introducing the dark ambiance and low-lit sets he used to great effect in “Blade”, Norrington robs the colorful comic book settings of everything but their two-dimensionality. He cannot resist using his previously successful, multi-layered action style —splicing scenes into a visual barrage of images— which turns fight scenes such as these with so many protagonists into an unimpressive jumble.
One of the subtle pleasures of any good narrative is that the main characters are revealed naturally, with little explanation, leaving the watcher to discover familiar ingredients in a new context and allowing movie-goers unfamiliar with the characters to savor the experience of discovering them. “LXG”, however, features pat little biographical descriptions, clogging up the flow of the story, adding additional flavorless dialogue and talking down to an audience that has likely already guessed that the Invisible Man’s “ability” is that he is invisible. All of these additions leave a potentially extraordinary film drowned in a cloying soup of mediocrity.
To look at the bright side, the “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” has potential and originality, with familiar legends placed together in an interesting situation. The rich, imaginative fantasy that the idea of this movie represents is ambitious and intriguing. It is pity that the story does not realize even a fair share of what it could be, but it is entertaining and each of the characters deserve a second look, which is an extraordinary quality for any summer action movie.
Parents should know that this movie contains strong violence, a great deal of peril, and deaths enough for a more restrictive rating. Nameless characters are killed in every manner of way, from the traditional (flame-throwers, guns and explosions) to the supernatural, including the unwanted attentions of a vampire. There are some sexual references as well as sexuality between characters.
Families who watch this movie should talk about the strengths and weaknesses of each of these very different characters. None of them wish others to share their abilities, why not? Why would each of these lone characters come together in a “League”? What are their motivations supposed to be? What are they really?
For those families who enjoy the characters and would like to experience them in their natural environment, all of the books from which the characters are derived or inspired are recommended: for Captain Nemo, Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues under the Sea” or “The Mysterious Island”; for Allen Quartermain, any of a number of H. Rider Haggard’s works (most famously, “King Solomon’s Mines”); for Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde’s “A Portrait of Dorian Gray”; for Mina Harker, Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”; for Rodney Skinner, H.G. Wells’ “The Invisible Man”; for Jekyll/Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; and, for Tom Sawyer (in a completely different light), Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”.
Families who enjoy this movie might consider reading the comic books, with the caveat that they are aimed at a more mature audience than the movie. Although illustrated, “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” is NOT for young children. Moore delights in the dichotomy of the Victorian age’s repression and debauchery, as seen in his “From Hell” series about Jack the Ripper (made into a movie starring Johnny Depp, 2001), and, therefore, presents each of the “extraordinary gentlemen” indulging in what he considers their logical vices. For example, Quartermain is a run-down opium addict, the Invisible Man takes advantage of school-girls, and Mr. Hyde kills the prostitutes with whom Dr. Jekyll consorts. Although they have been conveniently collected in one graphic novel, it is in their individual comic book form that they display the wit of their turn-of-the-(19th)-century inspired advertisements. For mature teens, the first series of the comic book (Vol. 1 – 6) might be an interesting entrée into an age of adventure.
Families who enjoy the movie’s characters might be interested in movies regarding their individual stories, including:
· Quartermain in “King Solomon’s Mines” (1937) which is dated by its stereotypes but stars the always-impressive Paul Robeson as the brave native guide, Umbopa;
· Disney’s first live-action film, “20,000 Leagues under the Sea” (1954), which features Captain Nemo, the Nautilus, and Oscars for art direction as well as –now camp— special effects;
· “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1945), with a lovely Angela Lansbury as the ingénue who falls under Dorian’s thrall;
· The mesmerizing Claude Rains –or his voice, to be more specific— as “The Invisible Man” (1933); or the downright silly take on the tale in “Abbot and Costello meet the Invisible Man” (1951); and,
· Frederic March in his Oscar-winning portrayal of the title characters, in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1931).
While there are many versions of Dracula, few of them pay much attention to the character of Mina Harker and none of those that do bear mentioning here.