With all the top tier superheroes like Hulk and the X-Men lighting up the box-office over the past year, who would have thought that characters taken directly from classic adventure and horror literature would fit into that mold so well? The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is not exactly a wham-bang superhero spectacular in the same vein as Spider-Man or Daredevil, but it is an undeniably interesting experience for a mid-July blockbuster. Like many popular movies of late, The League puts a new spin on an old story. Not an updated retelling, or a “re-imagining” as some filmmakers have put it (cough-Tim Burton-cough), but a meeting of several classic stories combined to create a fairly entertaining popcorn distraction.
The story opens at the end of the nineteenth century with a familiar yet somehow displaced metal object running amok in the streets of Victorian London. That object is a tank, but as this is early 1899, the police force is as baffled by the steel behemoth as we would be. The tank pummels through building after building before finally settling in front of a bank vault, as a mysterious masked figure carrying a silver scepter appears to be planning something big. We jump-cut over to blazing Kenya as a bowler-wearing man enters a grungy bar to meet with famed adventurer Allan Quatermain (Sean Connery). Quatermain is then asked to lead a team of “unique” individuals for the Royal Empire to prevent a tyrannical madman known as the “Phantom” (no, not the operatic one) from sinking Venice to the bottom of the sea and setting off a “World War.”
Quatermain is given the orders by LXG recruiter (Richard Roxburgh), known simply as “M” (one of two James Bond references; Connery's character is also given the nickname of “Q”) and he is soon introduced to the colorful team of outcasts. Scientist Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah), vampiress Mina Harker (Peta Wilson), invisible man Rodney Skinner (Tony Curran), Immortal Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend), American Secret Service agent Tom Sawyer (Shane West), and Dr. Henry Jekyll & Mr. Edward Hyde (Jason Flemyng, whose alter ego looks like a distant cousin of the Hulk).
The League begins on a strong note, dazzling the viewer with an array of sumptuous production design, clean visual-effects, and strong mood lighting to set the tone for this unique tale. The most curious thing is how much it reminded me of Wild Wild West. Both films use the technological ideas of Jules Verne to move the story forward by placing advanced mechanisms such as automobiles, submarines, rockets, and bulletproof vests in the late 1890's and making them clunky, yet still advanced. Both also use ongoing political turmoil as a backdrop to the villains' plot.
This strong sense of setting is one of the early reasons that The League is at least a marginal success. A nice time-warp affect propels the viewer into this faraway place while entertaining with some nice summer blockbuster clichés: a villain who wears a silver-mask and carries a scary-looking scepter, an army of foot soldiers who cackle as they perform their evil deeds, and an early confrontation between the heroes and villains to establish each other’s goals. The first half of the film introduces the characters perfectly and sets up some old-fashioned adventure that sparked fond memories of straight popcorn like The Mummy and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Shootouts, explosions, one-liners, and colorful characters all pulled me in immediately.
But like The Mummy Returns and other failed fantasy blockbusters, The League falters around halfway through, and becomes the type of bloated, CG-driven video game that the first previews had indicated. The film loses its sense of excitement in favor of some very cheesy special effects (particularly another cousin of the Hulk, only blood-red). There also seems to be a strong effort to make the film bigger and bigger right up until the finale. There are some exciting moments even then, but the climax turns out to be a major letdown.
Surprisingly, Sean Connery looks and sounds terribly bored. Perhaps he is unenthusiastic about being in a fantasy adventure that takes place in a distinct period of London's colorful history, a situation that could only remind him only of The Avengers, which, ironically, also saw him give a rare boring performance. The problem here is that he is the lead hero and needs to hold up the whole enterprise. He also shows a lot of his age in the action scenes. As the rest of the team uses their bizarre talents to win the battle (which could make them the original X-Men), Connery throws weak punches and barely moves. But give the 72-year old credit for trying.
These Gentlemen are certainly extraordinary. But The League is nothing out of the ordinary.
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