Review: “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”

Not since “Charlie’s Angels” has a film earned more of a mud-slinging reputation before it hit the screen than this adaptation of Alan Moore’s superb graphic novel.

Moore’s “From Hell” was an enormous work on Jack the Ripper – a brilliant and deep piece about the murders, a conspiracy involving the Royal family, the Freemasons, and one man’s insanity. Fox’s lackluster film adaptation with Johnny Depp however resembled it in name only – instead of a meticulous study of the psychology of a madman, it was another dull ‘who is Jack the Ripper’ tale with Heather Graham as the prettiest whore ever.

Moore’s “League” comic however was a very different work – at five issues long, the colourful series could be breezed through in about an hour and was a hell of a rollicking action/adventure/science fiction tale set in Victorian London but on a scale that looked like something out of 1950’s sci-fi movies. It was still filled with trademark Moore elements such as numerous references to literary characters and events, and it had a real dark edge to it with characters like a 15-foot tall gorilla-like Mr. Hyde tearing people limb from bloody limb or The Invisible Man spending his time molesting young girls at a boarding school.

The film adaptation was always going to be a tough sell but if done right this could’ve been one of the most dynamic adventure films ever put onscreen since “Indiana Jones”. The inclusion of two new young male characters, one American would of course add a different feel – as did the losing of the Fu Manchu & The Chinese War Machine subplot from the comic probably for PC reasons.

The darker elements were always going to be toned down too or this might’ve gotten a hard R for some of the more hardcore scenes from the material such as Mina Harker’s near rape by Egyptian peasants. When production began however there was problems, from the flooding of Prague where they were filming to the constantly re-written script which first ran in an entirely different direction away from the original material, and then started to incorporate elements from it again towards the end.

Connery and Director Stephen Norrington had major arguments to the point it almost came to blows, and whilst the poster artwork was beautiful the various trailers which Fox put out met with limp reaction at best to the point the expectations are very low.

Sadly they match the film. Short of the general concept, this bears pretty much no resemblance to the comic. Much like the “Spawn” film they’ve taken an original and dark literary work and turned it into a PG-13 visual tale utilising a woeful script, poor character development, some awful effects and a complete lack of any edge and even coherence.

A lot of people chide “The Hulk” for being slow and boring (which it admittedly is) or “Daredevil” for being a poorly constructed mess, but even then you could see they were at least trying to do something intriguing and creative. ‘League’ on the other hand solely survives because of its good concept at heart (ie. the teaming of these colourful literary characters), otherwise there’s nothing separating this from something like “The Avengers” in terms of how bad it gets.

The actors are a mixed bag but honestly they’re not really to blame as they try their best with what little material they’ve got from James Dale Robinson’s utterly awful script. Connery survives this much better than ‘Avengers’ thankfully and has both a good introduction and an admittedly well played ‘fatherly’ subplot with rising young hunk Shane West who turns in some nice work as Tom Sawyer.

Peta Wilson as Mina Harker has pretty much the best moment of the film when she reveals her true nature, although seems a bit stiff – as does Stuart Townsend though it suits their long-living upper-class characters and giving the pair a back history together is a good addition.

Jason Flemyng makes Dr. Jekyll a likeable guy although the awful gorilla-like makeup of Mr. Hyde is terrible and the character even worse as he becomes something of a wimpering jughead instead of the out of control animal of the comic. The two best translations from the material are that of Nemo and The Invisible Man, the latter given some good special effects and a likeable (albeit too good natured) personality whilst the former has that mysterious dark element too him plus one hell of a fighting style. Richard Roxburgh as ‘M’ delivers the worst performance of his career and his whole subplot and subsequent revelation which was such a master stroke in the comic is disgustingly mishandled here.

If one thing makes this film survive its the early scenes. Whereas introductions to characters can be some of the dullest things in a superhero movie, here it is the strongest. From the African-set action to the stand-off in Dorian Gray’s library, these scenes are the film’s best and admittedly do contain some good small moments of dialogue. However as things move to Venice and then icy Mongolia, they really take a massive turn for the worst and become one long and forgettable piece.

Its hard to know who to blame for all this. Director Stephen Norrington helmed the surprisingly well put together “Blade” back in 1998 which was a fun movie (certainly better than its mediocre sequel), but totally mishandles many elements here from the stupid quick-cut Hyde transformation scenes, to the pacing overall.

Producer Don Murphy should be banned from doing comic adaptations ever again considering how monumentally bad this and ‘From Hell’ (which he was both involved with) stank. Not sure who, but the decision to include all the 20th century war machine technology in the time period from tanks & machine guns to the super fast car of Nemo was just a bad call although the Nautilus looks quite sweet on screen.

Overall though this baby is a complete mess and joins the likes of “Captain America” and “Spawn” as just films which are unbearable to watch once you’ve been through them – yes its almost “Batman & Robin” bad but not quite as it at least takes itself seriously.

This has the odd good moment for sure, but its still not anywhere near enough and considering the high quality of some Marvel adaptations in recent years this pales in comparison. This won’t be the film which ends the trend of comics into movies but this is one that’ll be cited as an example of how fouled up they can get. I implore those who’ve never read the graphic novel to pick it up – you will find far more pleasure in it than wasting it watching this mess.