Despite becoming increasingly antagonistic towards Hollywood's adaptations of his graphic novels to the point where he has his name removed from the credits and washes his hands of them, I've yet to see an interpretation of the great Alan Moore's work that I didn't love. From Hell was tremendously atmospheric and almost caught up with Murder By Decree in the Jack The Ripper stakes. V For Vendetta was equally fantastic. And The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, or LXG as it is known in its more convenient moniker, despite being the most altered of the batch, is actually the most ambitious and downright enjoyable. There are plenty of graphic novel or comic-book (they are not the same things, folks) artists out there who have every right to be aggrieved at the big screen treatment their cherished 2D creations have been forced to suffer at the hands of careless filmmakers, but I truly can't see what Alan Moore has so much to beef about.
Stephen (Blade) Norrington came to the project of translating Moore's offbeat, and acquired taste, turn of the 20th Century romp LXG with lofty ideas and a real cavalier attitude to throwing spectacle, bizarre characters and relentless tour-de-force set-pieces in the audiences' collective face for almost two hours. Indeed, it is hard for me to think of a big budget, action adventure with as much bang-for-you-buck in recent years as this. It may be true that Moore's characters - some added, some taken out - have less bite than they did on the page, but the cleverness of the writer's story and his ingenious intermingling of historic personalities with noted fictional heroes has not so much been dumbed-down as necessarily abbreviated in order to make way for the showcasing of their not-inconsiderable talents in the thrall of a race against time. Personally, I love this film ... although it slipped quite surprisingly out of the public's attention span during its theatrical run and doesn't seem to have found much of a niche fan-base since. Try as I might, I can't fathom this. For such a flamboyant, pell-mell, rollercoaster of a movie to seemingly founder on the rocks of critical ambivalence is perplexing, to say the least.
In what appears to be a very self-consciously reluctant performance - definitely mirroring his real-life indifference to acting these days - Sean Connery steps into the safari attire of the adventurous Alan Quatermain who, drafted in by England's shady Secret Service honcho “M” (hmmm ... Connery, M ...?), played by Richard Roxburgh in yet another appallingly glass-chinned performance, must gather together a team of unique individuals in order to combat a powerful new threat to world order. Somebody going by the name of the Fantom (their spelling) has used his mechanised know-of to build an army of tanks, bombs, chemicals and fully automatic weapons - all real eye-openers back in 1899 - and is intending to the thrust the powers that be into a huge world war ... just a little something to brighten up the turn of the century festivities. A very important meeting of international dignitaries is about to be held in Venice and M has got wind of the Fantom's plot to blow it to smithereens. The clock is ticking and Quatermain has some colleagues to amass for this “one last mission”.
With Peta Wilson's mysterious Mina Harker now pursuing an alternate career from the one that Bram Stoker originally intended for her - Dracula's bite having created a whole new liquid diet for the pallid siren - and new group additions US Secret Service agent Tom Sawyer, played by Shane West, and Stuart Townsend's dapper Dorian Gray vying for her attentions, the team dynamic still has room for in-fighting and motivational intrigue. Perhaps more so once the immense one-man riot Mr. Hyde (Jason Flemyng), who is actually two members for the price of one, considering his moralistic weakling alter-ego of Dr. Jeckyll, and the cold-hearted master-mariner Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah) come onboard as well, both carrying questionable baggage with them. About the only member of the League who is upfront about his powers and his outlook is Tony Curran's smart-mouthed, quick-witted potion-pilferer, the “new” Invisible Man (the enterprising cockney rebel stole the original see-through's magical formula after he died, you see), who makes no bones about his snooping capabilities and decidedly dodgy background. With so many characters gadding about, you could be forgiven for thinking that they would only be fleetingly sketched-in and, broadly speaking, this is true ... to a degree. They all have issues, but it would take a movie five hours long to give them each the requisite amount of screentime to address them fully. As it stands, James Dale Robinson's screenplay does a fine, if throwaway, job of putting some flesh on their bones. Rather a lot of prosthetic flesh in Mr. Hyde's case, and a gossamer-thin smearing of icky face-pack for the Invisible Dude, but enough, nevertheless, to ensure that we know each of them with slightly more than mere disposable visual shtick.
Mind you, this is where most fans of the books throw up their hands in dismay. They are still only mere shadows of Moore's eloquent, quote-happy crowd of tired old has-beens.
But if the characters lose much of their psychological depth from the printed page, they still carry just enough twitchy angst and arrogance to make them memorably individual. Quatermain's opium and alcohol addictions are nixed in favour of a more overbearing disinterest in the British Empire and its meddling Imperialism. A haunted past is alluded to a couple of times, but this really doesn't amount to much and Connery's grouchy take is actually perfectly fitting for an adventurer who is ashamed of getting older and would really rather be quaffing brandy back in his beloved Kenya. Actually, the more you watch his performance, the more obvious it is how little love he has for not only this production, but for the whole movie-making process, itself. Captain Nemo was a much more ruthless character in the books, but, once again, this nefarious past is enigmatically referenced to by Mina Harker's somewhat naïve suspicions of his worshipping the Goddess Kali, and Jeckyll's snide remarks about his less-than-savoury exploits. Shah's portrayal of the aquatic-engineering genius is bold and quite frightening. I say frightening because I have a friend who looks just like this particular Nemo, if you swap the turban for a baseball cap. He has a massive beard too, and eyes that positively glower like Shah's even when he is in the happiest of moods. But Shah totally reminds me of him during his not-so happy phases and, coupled with the character's marvellous martial-arts skills, this Nemo strikes me just as much as a person you wouldn't want to get on the wrong of as the one in Moore's page-turning version.
Tony Curran's Invisible Man is slightly short-changed by a script that obviously favours the more visibly fleshed-out, but he is still a fine old chancer who steals some early scenes with savvy. Shane West's spy Tom Sawyer is an obvious studio-placed American face, but I think he works well in the role. There's nothing overtly special asked of him and, after all, what film doesn't need a go-for-broke hero sporting a Winchester Rifle? The interest is hoiked-up a little more when we get to Dorian Gray, who brings with him a sense of the haunted world of the supernatural. Kudos goes to the line about Alan Quatermain being the young student at a university lecture being given by Gray and Townsend manages to make even the most blatantly contrived instances of skulduggery a little more credible. His prior relationship with Mina makes for some wicked little asides, too, even if the New Guinea-born Peta Wilson is a touch too icy for any real chemistry to develop between her and anybody else. Flemyng does what he can from beneath that massive latex bodysuit and I have to admit that I quite like his Hulk-style split-personality with his monstrous side taunting his ethical side from mirrors and appealing to Jeckyll's suppressed sexual urges. We get to see his Hyde in action quite a bit and I like the use of forced-perspective to gain him height. Still looks a bit too rubbery, though.
The major failing as far as I'm concerned is with the villainous Fantom who is, quite frankly, pathetic. He is purely an old radio-play bad guy of the pseudo-Nazi variety and, without his technological army to fall back on, pretty useless. Plus, there's no surprise who is lurking beneath the mask when it comes off - which happens so early on that it would appear even Norrington realised the game was up. Having the bad guy simply running away whenever the heroes show up is a bit naff, as well. Without a major physical threat from the chief lunatic, you just know that you've got to look for a final fist-fuelled finale elsewhere. And, thankfully, Norrington supplies several diversionary ones to add impetus to the clock-ticking climax.
LXG also benefits from a huge and aggressive score from Trevor Jones, who had also scored the Hughes Brothers' adaptation of Moore's From Hell. Although Jones cut his teeth with fantasy-action movies - The Dark Crystal and Merlin are perennial favourites - he has also elevated the likes of The Last Of The Mohicans (along with Randy Edelman), Cliffhanger and Dark City, but his predilection for dark, rumbling themes has been going on for a bit now. His music for LXG is undoubtedly robust and action-packed, but there is still that immense heaviness of orchestration that is designed purely to rattle the ribs, the foundations of the house and the very soul, itself. Great cues signify the Nautilus and the pursuit of Mr. Hyde, whilst two action extravaganzas - the Venice run-around as the buildings topple and the frenzied finale - literally engulf the film with all-out bombast. This energetic approach is totally appropriate to the constant whiz-bang that Norrington is trying to achieve with the film and, consequently, LXG positively barrels along with a constant wall of sound backing it up.
It is true that some of the CG effects can look a tad naff from time to time. Our first epic view of the Nautilus rising up from the murk of London docks has that complete unreality that mired a similar sequence when the Kracken rose up beside Jack Sparrow in Dead Man's Chest; and the big Dante monster that battles Hyde during the finale is particularly dreadful and cartoonic, reminding us of the poor CG bloodbeast from the director's earlier Blade. But the film manages to skirt around such shortcomings by being so visually arresting throughout almost its entire running time. The very production design is wonderfully inventive and striking. That same Nautilus looks absolutely astounding when scything through the waves - fully a mile long (well, it seems like it, anyway) and ornately sculpted out of what gleams like quicksilver, it resembles a gargantuan knife cutting through the sea, literally the “Sword Of The Sea” as its proud Captain calls it, then. Arriving in Venice and slotting itself down the tight canals is a staggering vision of incongruity, which is the perfect visual depiction of the film's overriding theme of technology not only racing ahead of the common man's understanding but being nigh on unstoppable, as well. Mr. Hyde may, admittedly, look like an enraged Jason Flemyng head stuck onto a preposterous rubber suit of a shaved King Kong but it is still an awe-inspiring sight to see the brute loping along rooftops in top hat and the rags of a dinner-jacket. When Venice begins to fall like a row of dominoes, an excellently vast and dynamic scope is revealed that is, to be blunt, stretching a little too far out of the film's actual comfort-zone, but hats-off for the sheer audacity of the set-piece. In fact, this sequence really is a standout. We have the Nautilus parked-up just out of sight (yeah, right!), Nemo's stretch-Roller thundering through bullet-raked streets, Mina transforming into a swarm of bats to take out the army of rooftop snipers and the crashing masonry of a hundred doomed structures collapsing as though an invisible Godzilla is trampling on them. It's great stuff. The plentiful skirmishes are quite full-throttle, too. With Quatermain headbutting everyone in sight and delivering tremendous old-school knuckle-hammers and Nemo spinning around like a Dervish - “I walk a different path,” he warns one careless attacker wielding a puny machine-gun! - and a reassuringly high bodycount, LXG parades its violence with as much vigour as a PG-13 can possibly allow. The books were bloodier, of course, but Norrington's film definitely packs a punch and gives the League a lot more athleticism.
So, more Dick Barton than H. Rider Haggard and more Bulldog Drummond than Jules Verne, Stephen Norrington's take on the literary heroes and villains of yesteryear is not without its ups and downs. But to turn your back on such an unashamed spectacle as this is doing it a grave disservice. Fast and frantic, LXG is a powerhouse of a movie that wants to have its cake and eat it, too. And, it almost succeeds. A gaggle of skilled characters who all get time to ply their trades and engage in some frothy (and, indeed, pithy) banter, a rush of visual effects that score points for audacity if nothing else and a pretty meaty escalation of violent set-pieces - and you have almost perfect Saturday Matinee entertainment, which is certainly the best way to view the movie. Okay, the Dante monster is pushing things a bit too far, but how can you knock a film that attempts to give the punter everything he wants in one sitting?
Ultimately, The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen is good fun and well worth re-evaluating.
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