1899, the world is on the edge of a new century and faces a potentially violent future. A masked megalomaniac known as The Fantom is kidnapping scientists as part of a mysterious but no doubt diabolical scheme. The enigmatic M recruits a unique group of individuals, famed for their fantastical exploits, who may possibly be able to avert the unthinkable, a world war.
Plagued by a troubled production involving flooding and much publicised tensions between director Stephen Norrington and Sean Connery The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen certainly had its share of ‘birth pains’ before reaching the screen. Another in a long line of cinematic adaptations of the work of comic book legend Alan Moore this much maligned movie brings together major characters from late 19th century fantasy literature to form a sort of Victorian X-Men.
The rather delicious premise is perhaps the film’s biggest stumbling block. Are contemporary cinemagoers familiar or interested in the likes of Allan Quatermain, Captain Nemo and Mina Harker? This beggars the question, who is the film aimed at? A question that wasn’t satisfactorily solved by the muddled marketing of the film. Alan Moore purists will be aggrieved by the many changes to participants and plot, fans of 19th century literature may be turned off by a loud blockbuster and the popcorn audience the film is aimed at could be a tad bewildered by the roster of heroes. To be fair the script does make a decent stab at introducing the characters and with the legendary Sean Connery in the role of Haggard’s adventurer Quatermain, his personality is easily established.
Unfortunately Connery’s dominance over proceedings tends to overshadow what should have been a more equal ensemble piece. Nemo, played at last by an Indian, does little more than provide transport. Other members of The League, like Jason Flemyng’s introverted Dr Jekyll are not really given enough screen time but certainly make the best of things with some engaging banter between the recruits forced together. The addition of Tom Sawyer (Shane West) is totally unnecessary, offering little more than some father/son banter with Quatermain. Dorian Gray, another character not found in Moore’s graphic novel and now invincible as well as immortal, comes off better. Stuart Townsend imbues him with an enjoyably decadent persona and he has an enticing relationship with Mina, also endowed with immortality thanks to an encounter with one Count Dracula.
Once the contrasting characters have been recruited things move into familiar action mode with The League out to thwart The Fantom’s plans to sabotage a peace conference in Venice with a few comfortably old-fashioned cliffhangers and twists along the way. The script also has a handful of witty one-liners and a distinctly british sense of humour running throughout, much at the expense of the American League member Sawyer. Regrettably things are slightly hampered by the odd dodgy FX shot and a few of the fight scenes fall victim to clumsy editing with the inclusion of the now obligatory kung fu. However, the impressive production designs by Carol Spier give an authentically fantastical Victorian sci-fi look to the locations and hardware, Nemo’s Nautilus is particularly impressive, a strikingly elegant design.
Despite its shortcomings The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is an entertaining boys own adventure that is carried along by a unique premise, light pace and distinct visual style. It’s certainly more fun than Van Helsing, which follows a similar path in reinventing classic literary fantasy characters. It’s also a welcome relief from the current trend in superhero movies, to overload them with heavy-handed soap opera style character angst at the expense of fun. Alas the film’s poor box office performance means the promise of a sequel, which would follow Moore’s second volume and see the League battle the Martian menace of H.G. Wells’ tripod invaders, seems unlikely to reach the screen.