The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

(2003) ** 1/2 Pg-13
110 min. 20th Century Fox. Director: Stephen Norrington. Cast: Sean Connery, Naseeruddin Shah, Peta Wilson, Tony Curran, Stuart Townsend.

It's difficult enough for filmmakers to make great films from great novels, but cinema's short history has seen plenty of fine adaptations. Hollywood's failure to make more than a handful of satisfactory comic book translations (from economic visual and verbal blueprints) remains a counter-intuitive puzzle. To read Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's limited series comic-book fantasia The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, like most great "graphic novel" experiences, is to envision an unusually rich and darkly colorful movie, one which trumps the far-sketchier action films commonly foisted on the public. Stephen Norrington's bowdlerized film adaptation--a close-but-no-cigar excursion at best--is an imaginative but undisciplined near-miss.

Scoring Sean Connery as 19th-Century British adventurer Allan Quartermain turned out to be a coup and a curse for director Norrington. Connery brings age-appropriate star wattage to the cast. But his airing of dirty laundry (a feud with the director has culminated in public insults) and the 72-year-old star's hands-on executive producing bred creative conflicts. Of course, having creative conflicts with Stephen Norrington (Blade) is a bit like arguing comedic concepts with Tom Green. It seems unlikely, based on the evidence that is the film, that either Connery or Norrington fully subscribed to the vision of original writer Alan Moore (From Hell), anyway.

Comic book vet James Dale Robinson wrote the screenplay, which--like the comic books--assumes the alternate reality of literary history. In this world, Quartermain (from H. Rider Haggard's pulp fiction), an Invisible Man (derived from H.G. Wells's novel and played to the seedy hilt by Tony Curran), Bram Stoker's vampiric unfortunate Mina (Peta Wilson), Jules Verne's inscrutable Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah), and Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (both played by Jason Flemyng) walked among us in 1899, in the shadow of the late, great Sherlock Holmes, no less. Moore's witty story peppered others, like Edgar Allan Poe's French flatfoot M. Dupin, but never strayed from its Anglophilic roots. Employing a cynical (but not necessarily bad) idea, Robinson throws in Mark Twain's all-American boy, Tom Sawyer (Shane West), now a grinning agent of the spanking-new Secret Service. Also on board: Oscar Wilde's painterly fountain-of-youth Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend).

Gathered by the mystery-shrouded "M" (Richard Roxburgh of Moulin Rouge), the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (and "gentle"-woman) set out to foil the masked Fantom's divide-and-conquer plans for world domination. Like the comic, Norrington's film makes considerable hay from 19th-Century industrialization. The tall walls of dirty city streets dwarf the cast; similarly, Nemo's Nautilus submarine--the Sword of the Sea--makes a grandly thunderous entrance rising above the proud but imperturbable Indian seafarer and his astonished passengers-to-be. Likewise, the Invisible Man effects are as convincing as they've ever been on film.

But Norrington, whose background lies in special effects, is too in love with clanky razzle-dazzle and too restless when it comes to plot and character. Norrington tends to muddle his action with extreme angles, excessive quick-cutting, and tight framing (the refuges of literally or figuratively bankrupt action directors). Robinson's twisting plot emphasizes the film's strong suits--the novel characters and the element of surprise--but also dangerous confusion. O'Neill's art lent itself to a broader palette, and Moore's story to riskier characterizations and more perversely nifty misdirection.

Connery obviously wouldn't abide the comic's take on Quartermain as a frequently pathetic, laudanum-soaked has-been (Dupin calls him "a weakling and a fool"). Parked in an African gentleman's club, Connery's Quartermain is a sharp and noble retiree, ready for action yet lacking any motivation but self-preservation. When danger comes knocking, he comes out two-fisting in an unlikely fight scene presumably sponsored by the AARP. As the story rolls on, Connery takes on an increasingly honorable air, with portentous, hand-tipping dialogue about the "old tiger sensing his end." As Quartermain's surrogate son, Sawyer studies under the old master. West can act--and on the face of it, wouldn't seem miscast--so why is he so horrifically ineffective here? No doubt a combination of too-contemporary manner and proximity to even a sleep-acting Connery.

For all its missteps, Norrington's film can't bury a cracking-good premise. Heavy on the murk, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen coasts on filigreed design, Connery's latent star-power, and tried-and-true characters (heck, Jekyll-Hyde rides back in on the wave of knock-off successors the Green Goblin, Gollum-Smeagol, and the Hulk). A hinted-at sequel would be welcome, in the hands of a more daring director. Perhaps Guillermo Del Toro--who directed the improved Blade 2--wouldn't mind more of Norrington's leavings?

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