Prepare for the Extraordinary
Running Time: 104 minutes
UK Certificate: 12A
Country: Czech Republic, Germany, United Kingdom, United States
A ragtag team of freaks with odd talents do battle, using all the newest technology at their disposal, with an evil mastermind intent upon triggering a World War using Weapons of Mass Destruction – sounds like 'X-Men', only this time the action is set in 1899. The characters are not mutants, but the literary creations of Victorian gothic, and the latest in modern weapons are ungainly automatic rifles, tanks, a submarine ('The Nautilus') and a car ('I call it an Au-to-mo-bile', as its inventor Nemo spells out, '[it's] the future'). Yep, in the postmodern 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen', the future has never looked so coolly dated, with the design for everything seeming to come straight from an art deco catalogue.
Which is just as well, because you need something to distract you from all the lacklustre acting and plodding plot. Stephen Norrington's previous work on 'Blade' proves his ability to direct exciting fight sequences, but here the action set-pieces are strangely static. Tony Curran as thief Rodney Skinner is given such a bundle of clichéd 'cockney' lines that you would barely notice him even if he weren't invisible. The character of the vampire Mina Harker, played by Peta Wilson, is so dull that she seems literally to suck the life out of every scene in which she appears. Naseeruddin Shah projects an almost haunting earnestness, but basically his Captain Nemo is a nobody, and Jason Flemyng also struggles in vain to make the most out of a rôle (as Jekyll/Hyde) that has been written as little more than an excuse for effects-driven transformations. Oh, and the villainous Fantom, once he has been unmasked, proves so spineless and ineffectual that it is hard to believe he could pose a threat to anyone.
There are in fact only three properly realised characters in the film. Stuart Townsend's immortal dandy Dorian Gray gets all the best lines, and his camp strutting and preening steals the picture. Sean Connery's retired globetrotting defender of the realm Alan Quatermain exploits Connery's past (or is that future?) persona as James Bond, with Quatermain even being handled by a man called 'M'. And just as Connery has played the British father of American adventurer Indiana Jones, here he plays father figure to young US secret serviceman Tom Sawyer (Shane West). Sawyer, whose only special power seems to be the fact that he is an American, did not appear in the original graphic novel of Alan Moore/Kevin O'Neil, and seems to have been added primarily to make the film more appealing to US audiences – but nonetheless his presence as Quatermain's adopted son points to the future rise of a new US Empire out of the ashes of the British one, and lends a certain prophetic poignancy to Dorian Gray's claim to 'have lived long enough to see the future. Empires crumble, there are no exceptions'. What this comment implies for the prospects of the only Superpower around at the end of the twentieth century is left to the imagination.
It's Got: A large dose of fin de siècle angst, and lots of heavy-handed literary jokes (although from about halfway through the film, they virtually disappear without trace, leaving behind a very ordinary adventure film).
It Needs: A less self-satisfied script, better (or at least fewer) characters, more excitement.
While 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' is not terrible, its highly original and unusual premise deserves a much better treatment.