The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) – Directed by Stephen Norrington – Starring Sean Connery, Naseeruddin Shah, Peta Wilson, Tony Curran, Stuart Townsend, Shane West, Jason Flemyng, and Richard Roxburgh.
What’s most disappointing about THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN isn’t that it’s awful, but that Stephen Norrington comes really close to making an honest-to-goodness good film. But LOEG isn’t a good film; at best it’s a diverting afternoon watch for me, and the hope I have is that it’s the afternoon watch for plenty of kids, who then explore these characters in other venues. Because LEAGUE is a little boy’s dream come to life; watching the movie is like watching what a little kid sees in his head when he plays with all of his various toys at once.
As you know if you’ve been kicking around the Anxiety for a bit, I don’t judge films by how well they stay true to the source material; I judge them on their own merits, and if they fall short I’ll sometimes look to the source material to try and figure out what went wrong. LEOG isn’t the comic book, and if you come to this movie wanting the Alan Moore/Kevin O’Neill series to pop to life on the screen, you’re not going to get it. Norrington’s film treats these characters as pulp heroes instead of Moore’s more literary take on them; Moore gives us people who are largely on the downside of their careers, while Norrington seems obsessed with the eternal vitality of characters. Moore is interested in what happens to the characters after they leave the pages of the novels we’ve read, while Norrington’s interest is largely to create an actual all-star team. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Norrington’s approach – it just ends up less successful than I’d like.
It’s 1899 and the world is on the brink of a World War. Some evil dude called the Fantom is attacking both the Brits and the Germans, who blame each other. The Brits have a secret plan, though. They’re going to assemble a new version of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and the key to this plan is recruiting legendary adventurer Allan Quatermain (Sean Connery) to head up the mission. A British government agent heads to Africa, where Quatermain is busy hanging out with some other old fogeys. Quatermain doesn’t want anything to do with the Brits. But then some mysterious cowboys show up and start shooting and blowing things up, so Quatermain decides he’ll help.
Quatermain heads back to England, where he meets M (Richard Roxburgh), Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah), Mina Harker (Peta Wilson), and Rodney Skinner the Invisible Man who they don’t call the Invisible Man because they couldn’t secure the rights (Tony Curran, who played Vincent Van Gogh in one of my favorite all-time DOCTOR WHO episodes: VINCENT AND THE DOCTOR). M gives them the rundown of what’s what and they’re off to recruit Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend). Dorian doesn’t want to sign up, but then some more of the Fantom’s men attack, and so he does. We meet Tom Sawyer (Shane West), a member of the U.S. Secret Service who slipped into the ranks of the Fantom’s men so he could get into Dorian’s house and find out what’s what. After capturing Mr. Hyde (Jason Flemyng), the League jumps into Nemo’s ship, Nautilus … and the film grinds to a halt.
So far we’ve had a few mediocre action scenes, but at least the film is moving somewhere. Part of the problem with LEOG is that the CGI is so false looking; I never feel like I’m in a real world here. Now, that’s not a deal breaker because LEOG is so clearly a fantasy. Because it’s a little kid’s fantasy, realism is never really on the table.
Once we get to the Nautilus, the film starts moving the pieces around the board; every character gets a bit of screen time and the film’s mystery starts coming into focus. Unfortunately, this is the most boring and uninspiring part of the movie. Mina and Dorian have a sexual history and if this were a more adult movie there might be something here. Unfortunately for me, it’s not and so the two characters allude to their shared past without generating any heat. They’re both immortal with qualifications: Mina is a vampire and Dorian can’t ever look at a particular picture of himself or he’ll die.
That picture leads to a pretty hilarious (maybe unintentionally so) exchange between Gray and Quatermain. When they were back at Dorian’s house, they climb some stairs that are lined with pictures. There’s a big empty spot right in plain view, to which Quatermain remarks, “There’s a picture missing,” and Dorian replies, “You don’t miss anything, do you Quatermain?”
Back on the ship, Quatermain and Sawyer are bonding and the scenes almost work. The problem is Shane West’s Tom Sawyer, who’s Southern accent feels like someone doing a Southern accent rather than someone who’s from the south. Again, though, this plays into the idea that this whole movie is really just a kid pushing his toys around in his backyard somewhere, and doing a southern accent himself. Quatermain has lost a son in the near-recent past (which is why he has no love for the British Empire) and starts to treat Sawyer with some fatherly affections. They bond over guns because they’re men, and the film’s best and worst scene comes at the same time. On the deck of the massive submarine, Sawyer comes across Quatermain when he’s shooting his rifle. Quatermain gives him a hard time about being American, which means his shooting strategy is to keep firing until you hit something. Quatermain shows him how to shoot his way, to take your time, to take account of the weather and then wait … wait … wait …
Sawyer decides to take this moment to not only ask about Quatermain’s dead son, but to ask, “Did you teach your son to shoot like this?”
While the camera remains focused on Sawyer, we can see Quatermain exit behind him. It’s a great moment for Quatermain and a decidedly stupid moment for Sawyer; what’s even more of a juxtaposition is that Norrington makes such a correct choice in how he barely shows Quatermain walking away, but such a dumb decision in how Sawyer asks the question. It makes me cringe at how ham-fisted West’s performance is and yet appreciate how professional Connery’s is, with Norrington’s direction caught somewhere in the middle.
The League starts to notice all sorts of things are missing, and so everyone naturally blame the Invisible Man because he’s a thief.
The Nautilus gets to Venice where the Fantom is going to blow the city into the water to start World War I, and the film starts to pick up a real pace again. There’s a bunch of solid if unspectacular action sequences that generally take too long to get through. Take the scene in Venice – the League piles into Nemo’s white sports car as the Fantom’s seemingly endless supply of henchmen fire at them from atop the roofs. How the henchmen knew what rooftops to be in is besides the point, of course – they’re there because the film needs them to be there. The scene is okay but overlong, and at some point you wonder if anyone went, “Jeez, it’s just a car driving down the road getting attacked from above. Maybe we should, I don’t know, give the bad guys a car?”
It’s in Venice where the team is successful in stopping the Fantom and also learns that the Fantom is really M. It’s a nice twist, and it’s probably the film’s best blend of characters from multiple stories from multiple generations. We’ve got M giving Connery, a former Bond, orders, but then M turns out to be Moriarty, the legendary nemesis of Sherlock Holmes. It’s clever and sets the film spiraling through the second half. M’s plan is to take a piece of what makes everyone special and then manufacture a new army of augmented soldiers; his spy turns out to be Dorian instead of Skinner. M is blackmailing Gray because he’s got the magic picture that Gray can never look at, but Gray doesn’t exactly seem conflicted by this turn of events.
The acting in LEAGUE is completely over the top – again like a kid might do playing with his action figures. The only actor who doesn’t fall in line is Connery, who spends the bulk of the film stalking through the film like a very angry, very old man. He snaps at M, at Nemo, at Mina, at Tom- hell, at everyone, and delivers a mean punch whenever he can.
Post-Venice, we get a bunch more decent if not memorable action sequences until we get to the film’s climax. It’s a good old fashioned storming the castle finale, and it ends when Sawyer uses Quatermain’s shooting technique to kill Moriarty as he tries to make his escape. Hooray.
I’d put THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN in the same class as a film like Van Helsing; they’re good and you can get some thrills out of them, but in the end they just don’t quite become what they could be. Everything in LEOG a bit too clean and phony looking, the acting and writing both play it broad, and the action sequences merely fill a role rather than wow me.