Directed by Steven Norrington, starring Sean Connery, Stuart Townsend, Peta Wilson, Shane West, Naseeruddin Shah, Tony Curran, Jason Flemyng and Richard Roxburgh.
That unstoppable juggernaut of movies based on comic books continues with 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen', an adaptation of Alan Moore’s masterful Victorian superhero series.
This trend has thrown up good ('X-Men'), fair ('Spiderman') and downright rubbish movies ('Hulk'), but the expectations for 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' (or 'LXG' as some of the publicity calls it) were sky-high. Alan Moore is regarded as the greatest living graphic novelist. His 'Watchmen' is often called the best comic ever and his 'League…' was a massive critical and commercial success.
The book was an audacious "high concept", bringing together heroes and villains from the pantheon of fantastic Victorian literature. Mina Harker (from 'Dracula') is given the task of assembling a task-force of period superheroes, recruiting Allan Quatermain from 'King Solomon’s Mines'; The Invisible Man, Captain Nemo and Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde for a 19th Century fantastic five. The setting is an alternative history - the year is 1899 - and horrors such as explosives, machineguns, mustard gas and magical anti-gravity materials are changing the balance of power.
With dark, gritty characterisations, brilliant illustrations and plenty of sly intertextual references, the story seemed tailor-made for a blockbusting big screen interpretation from Terry Gilliam or Tim Burton. Instead the directorial mantle fell to Steven Norrington, who proved a safe pair of hands bringing 'Blade' (another comic) to the screen.
The screenplay inevitably takes liberties with this fine source material – Quatermain (Sean Connery) is elevated from an opium-addicted wreck to a charismatic man of action. The fact that Connery executive produced the film could explain this.
Two heroes have been added to the League's ranks. Of the two, Dubliner Stuart Townsend is the better by far, turning in a deliciously foppish performance as Oscar Wilde's immortal anti-hero Dorian Gray. The other, Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer (West), is now all grown up and working for the American secret service. His character is a blatant sop to a pre-adolescent US audience and his sub-Keanu "Ughs", "Whoas" and "Ooohs" are as shockingly bad as his risible surrogate-son relationship with Connery’s character.
Mina Harker (Peta Wilson), though demoted in the ranks and generally under-used, is a crackling presence onscreen and her sparks with Townsend are probably the liveliest part of this sorry adventure.
The recruitment of the League might be memorable in a Magnificent Seven way, but just like the Western, the movie falls apart once the plot proper begins. A couple of stunning set pieces (the introduction of Captain Nemo’s Nautilus is particularly impressive) might save the first half of the movie but it's all downhill from there.
A limp villain, a laughable ending, and Sean Connery looking doddery in an endless parade of dull fist-fights are among the low points of this fiasco. Connery apparently took over the editing after Norrington got his marching orders. This probably accounts for his domination of the film's screen time, at the expense of the development of any of the other characters, particularly the intriguing Captain Nemo.
It could have been the smartest, moodiest superhero tale ever, instead 'The League…' is just another missed Hollywood opportunity.