The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
Stephen Norrington, USA, 2003
Posted: July 14, 2003
Kevin Forest Moreau
Take a compelling and grandly imaginative
comic -- sorry, graphic novel -- from Alan Moore and Kevin
O'Neill, bleach from it almost everything that made the source material
interesting, and what you're left with is Stephen (Blade)
Norrington's lowest-common-denominator take on The League of
Extraordinary Gentlemen. Any Hollywood hack could come up with a
premise as high-concept as League's collection of characters from
late-19th century literature into a Victorian superhero group. But it was
Moore's supple deconstruction of adventure-fiction staples (aided by
O'Neill's scratchy linework and remarkable head for detail) that made
League, the comic, so much more than simply a fin de siecle
Justice League of the British Empire.
Norrington's League, by contrast, isn't even as interesting as
the dull comic book most other writers would have made out of Moore's
idea. Not only does it jettison all but the comic's name and central
conceit, it erects on that foundation a drab and dreary glob of Hollywood
product that even the most talentless comic book hacks would find
insulting. That the script is credited to James Robinson, who won much
acclaim for his work on DC's
Starman in the mid-late '90s, is a cruel irony. (Although truth to
tell, his writing on that title has always seemed a bit affected to these
The plot: In 1899, a mysterious figure known as the Phantom, decked out
in an idiotic mask, is trying to manipulate the European nations into a
world war, from which he will profit as an arms merchant. To stop him, a
British official known only as M gathers together a disparate group of
individuals known for their exploits, or for unique abilities. The first
of these is renowned hunter and adventurer Allan Quatermain -- or
Quartermain, as it's spelled here, in direct conflict with the novels of
H. Rider Haggard. In the comic League, Quatermain's glory days are
long behind him; in fact, when we're first introduced to him, he's a
hopeless opium addict. Here, he's a strapping, robust he-man living a life
of seclusion with other retired adventurers in Kenya, who handily
dispatches a group of assassins, including one whom he fells from hundreds
of yards away.
It's quickly apparent that the most intriguing subtext of the comic
League -- that these characters are far from paragons, and are in fact
freaks -- will be glossed over at best and ignored completely at worst.
Cases in point: Quatermain soon makes the acquaintance of H.G. Wells'
Invisible Man (Tony Curran), an uncouth, wisecracking "gentleman thief"
named Rodney Skinner keen on an antidote for his condition, in marked
contrast to the comic's murderous sociopath Hawley Griffin; Jules Verne's
Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah), captain of the submarine Nautilus, a
cipher whose pirate past is alluded to so lazily it redefines
"afterthought"; and Mina Harker (Peta Wilson), no longer the (literally
and figuratively) scarred proto-feminist iconoclast of the comic, now a
sexy scientist/vampiress (thanks to her encounter with Bram Stoker's
Dracula) devoid of any character depth beyond one puzzling romantic
This decidedly non-fantastic foursome is beefed up with two mystifying
cinematic additions: Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend), whose
portrait now apparently doesn't just keep him from aging, but makes him
impervious to physical harm as well (when you're casting an Oscar Wilde
character in an action film, are you just not aware that something's
horribly amiss?); and (stretching the conceit of literary figures to the
breaking point) a grown-up Thomas Sawyer (Shane West), an American agent
whose presence is never adequately explained (doesn't he have supervisors
he should be reporting to back in the States?).
Once this sextet hunts down the hulking Mr. Hyde (Jason Flemyng), the
League is dispatched to thwart the Phantom's evil scheme. That the mission
they're given -- prevent the Phantom from blowing up a conference of world
leaders in Venice -- doesn't seem, at first glance, to require any of the
team's particular talents goes unnoticed by all concerned. And, sure
enough, it's all a ruse, a means of extracting blood samples and the like
(including the serum that turns Dr. Henry Jekyll into his hideous
alter-ego) from the various Leaguers, toward a goal of building an army of
super-powered bad guys.
Unimaginative as this plot is, it's further undone by a frustrating
lack of urgency -- aside from the recent abominable
Hulk, it's hard to think of a more passive
summer action flick in recent memory. Aside from Jekyll's gruesome
transformations into Hyde (and maybe Quatermain's skill with a rifle),
we're given little sense of what makes these characters above-average,
much less extraordinary. Nemo does bust a few
Matrix-style martial arts moves,
but they're too blatant to appreciate, and Mina's vampire abilities
likewise elicit a few yawns, especially an incompetent sequence involving
her flying with a swarm of bats. (It's as if Buffy the Vampire Slayer
never happened.) Even the Invisible Man is underused -- in fact, he goes
missing for half the film, the better to draw out a paper-thin subplot
involving a traitor in the group (whose existence is insultingly easy to
guess). Even when the true villain of the piece is revealed, the moment
falls to the ground with a clattering thud, bereft of any context within
the story itself and thus seemingly plucked from thin air.
Heaping flaw upon flaw, the cinematography is anemic, the sets
laughably unremarkable, the palate dull and watery: the Nautilus is a long
gray slab of steel; the streets of Venice, London and Paris are lifeless
and devoid of grime, their backdrops so obviously painted that Ed Wood
would grimace in distaste. Worst of all, Robinson's attempts at character
development sport all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, most especially
Sawyer's role as surrogate son to Quatermain, still smarting over an
adventure in which he led his own son to his death.
No one really expected fealty to the comic; it's a hallmark of Moore's
work that it's distinctly difficult to translate to other media, as the
aborted Watchmen film and the neutered
From Hell have demonstrated.
No, what grates about this League goes beyond the lack of Moore's
commentary on Victorian attitudes and his flawed, fallible antiheroes.
Ultimately, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen can't even
measure up to the brainless action-flick role it sets for itself; it
bungles even the high-concept premise that, stripped of anything close to
Moore and O'Neill's impressively inventive work, is all it has left.
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