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Gentlemen Prefer Bland

 

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Stephen Norrington, USA, 2003

Rating: 2.2

 

 

Posted: July 14, 2003

By 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 eyes.)

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 subplot.

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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