League is 20,000 under the sea

Wednesday, 16 July 2003 — 9:42am | Comics, Film, Full reviews

Director Stephen Norrington must be truly extraordinary: somehow he has managed to make The Pagemaster look like a tour de force of literary studies.

A more appropriate title for Norrington’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen would be Cliff Notes: The Movie, though that hardly does justice to the film’s absurd superhuman ability to take characters out of eighteenth-century literature remembered for the complexity of their tales, and water them down to one-note, one-joke self-parodying caricatures that are more like Pokémon than people. We see Allan Quartermain as the poster-headlining retired adventurer, played by Sean Connery in his best what-kind-of-lines-are-these look. The Invisible Man (Tony Curran) is invisible. Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend) is somehow immortal by way of the peculiarity with his portrait. Dr. Jekyll (Jason Flemyng) is the brute strength of the team when in his egregiously outfitted Mr. Hyde form. A certain Special Agent Tom Sawyer (Shane West) inexplicably shows up from America and delivers “witty” wisecracks about the British. When you begin to describe characters by a single trait or ability as if they were merely weapons, you know there’s a problem.

Conceptually, the idea of uniting iconic literary characters and making use of their special powers – the novelty behind the comic book on which this film is based – is something with great cinematic potential. It would ideally play out like a Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure of fiction rather than history, only serious and bullet-ridden. The problem is that James Dale Robinson’s flaccid screenplay acknowledges that the heroes of the piece are pre-established, and uses this as an excuse for forgoing any degree of coherent exposition.

But it was never intended to be anything more than a thrilling adventure movie, right? At least we could expect it to deliver on its promises to be high-octane visceral escapism? Nope. The League wants to be campy fun at every turn, but ends up as merely campy. The fight sequences are for the most part choppily edited; one early conflict switches characters and fights every second, moving from close-up to close-up, lacking any degree of continuity. The way these battles were staged, they must have looked really good live on set; however, they are muffled by poor editorial choices rather than amplified, as they should be.

A similar complaint can be made of the overall look of the film. Given The League‘s comic book roots, the Batman-esque gothic darkness of the sets and costumes is one of its high points. The way the production looks on the screen, however, is a different story. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen seems to misunderstand that the effect of darkness is most expressed with the contrast between light and shadow, and goes solely for the shadow. I suppose this is in line with the movie’s apparent philosophy that the audience should not have any idea what is going on, but this only highlights (pardon the pun) Conrad L. Hall’s superior work in Road to Perdition as the textbook on how to light a dark graphic novel adaptation. Granted, comparing Laustsen’s work in The League to Hall’s pedigree is akin to juxtaposing crab apples and Florida oranges, but that does not change the fact that the commendable design values go to waste.

With more coherent editing and smarter photography, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen could have been great, despite a horrendous screenplay. Add a better script and it could be marvelous, though it would be a completely different movie – namely, a watchable one. It has a lot going for it: the production design, a talented cast that does what it can, and most of all, the concept. There are even some very cinematic moments in the film, the briefest flashes of brilliance, as in a pivotal scene when our heroes listen to a staticky recorded message from the villain, which is shot like a grainy vintage reel. The unveiling of the movie’s Standard Diabolical Plan is the best-edited montage of the entire piece; it is a pity that the rest of the movie never comes close to that level of achievement.

For The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the nail in the coffin is that it is not even a whole lot of fun. It’s a bad movie, but not quite farcical enough in its badness to merit watching in a Mystery Science Theater 3000 way, or disastrous enough to leave permanent and visible scars to show your friends afterwards, à la 1998’s The Avengers. It fails because it is the worst kind of disappointment: one with tremendous promise. Even the League of Nations was a greater success.

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