In 2003, director Stephen Norrington, best known for making a kick-ass movie about a comic book hero who wasn’t a traditional superhero (1998’s Blade) directed another film based on a group of comic book heroes who weren’t traditional superheroes, with a screenplay by respected comics writer James Robinson.
The movie was The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, based on the graphic novel by writer Alan Moore and artist Kevin O’Neill. The comic was very successful and is considered by many a masterpiece.
The movie, alas, was neither.
It starts out cool, though, with the 20th Century Fox logo turning grungy and steampunkish…
Say what you will about the film’s quality, but it usually looks really good, with some exceptions I’ll talk about later.
The film opens with a robbery of the Bank of England by German-speaking soldiers driving a World War I-style tank, fifteen years before the war. The British headlines scream German foul play, but not long afterward, a German factory is attacked by English-speaking soldiers who kidnap a scientist. Both attacks are led by a mysterious dude in a metal mask.
The scene shifts to Kenya, where we find an agent of the British government looking for Allan Quatermain. And though the film will go to great lengths to tip its hat to the comic as much as possible, we find that the stories are completely different. For instance, in the comic, Quatermain is an opium addict when we first see him, while in the movie, he’s Sean Connery.
Quatermain doesn’t want to come on some damn fool, idealistic crusade (he’s getting too old for this sort of thing), but a clumsy attack by assassins changes his mind. So he heads to London, where we get our first clumsy reference to the comic’s brilliant central conceit, that all these characters from Victorian literature are real people and all living in the same world, as Quatermain mentions Phileas Fogg going Around the World in Eighty Days.
Quatermain is led down to a subterranean library, where he meets the man giving the orders, who identifies himself only as “M.”
But let’s pause a moment and take a closer look at that portrait behind him.
I’ve done my best to enhance it for clearer examination. M mentions to Quatermain that Leagues of Extraordinary Gentlemen have been formed before when the need arose, something that is alluded to in the graphic novel as well, when Mina looks at a portrait on the wall of these same characters. Clockwise from the left, we have Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow; Sir Percy Blakeney, alias The Scarlet Pimpernel; Â Natty Bumppo, the Deerhunter; and seated on the lower right is Dr. Lemuel Gulliver, who appears to have a Lilliputian on his arm. Missing from the picture are the two women of the group, Lady Blakeney and Fanny Hill.
Quatermain also notices a second painting on the wall…
This one features a man in green in the center who must be Robin of Locksley, aka Robin Hood. Which would make the knight on the left Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe, I’m guessing. IMDB trivia identifies the masked bowman on the right as The Black Arrow.
M introduces Quatermain to his new teammates, starting with the infamous Captain Nemo, who appears in front of a portrait of yet a third League.
The four across the top are obviously the Three Musketeers plus D’Artagnan. IMDB trivia identifies the other two as the Sea Hawk and Captain Blood.
Finally, we are introduced to the two other members (so far) of the League, Mina Harker and an invisible man named Skinner (because the movie could not get rights to use Griffin, the character from the H.G. Wells novel, apparently). M tells them that an arms merchant making advanced weapons is trying to goad the nations of the world into war (hey, wait, wasn’t that the plot of last week’s steampunk movie?). He sends them off to recruit their final two members before going to Venice to save a conference of world leaders from assassination by their mysterious foe, known only as The Phantom.
So they get into Nemo’s gorgeous badass car…
And head for the east docks, where we get another bit of fan service…
The poster on the right is an exact recreation of the credits to the graphic novel, naming not only the writer and artist, but also the colorist, letterer, and editor. The poster on the left recreates a headline seen on a newspaper in the original graphic novel, an oblique reference to H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, which would become the basis for the sequel graphic novel.
The group visits the house of Dorian Gray (not a character in the original graphic novel), who has a picture missing from his wall (hint, hint). As they try to convince Dorian to join them, suddenly, the agents of the Phantom surround them. The Phantom himself appears to urge them to join his side.
But no one goes for it. And suddenly, one of the Phantom’s men turns and starts shooting the others. There’s a big crazy fight, with Nemo busting out the kung fu moves…
While Dorian Gray survives about fifty bullets in the chest.
The League wins the fight, but the Phantom gets away. And in the aftermath, we learn that Mina is a vampire, and the identity of their mysterious rescuer.
He’s Special Agent Tom Sawyer of the Secret Service, also tracking the Phantom (and also not in the original graphic novel). He joins the group, which then boards the Nautilus to head for Paris to grab their last member.
The Nautilus, by the way, is a gorgeous design, although completely different from Kevin O’Neill’s design in the comic. I like O’Neill’s better for two reasons: number one, it looks like a giant sea monster, which the Nautilus in the novel was mistaken for, and number two, the creature it looks like just happens to be a nautilus. But the movie sub is nice eyecandy.
Once in Paris, they head for the Rue Morgue to capture their final member, Mister Edward Hyde, depicted here, as in the comic, as a gigantic apelike brute. Only in the movie, he wears a top hat.
(ETA: Yes, over a month later, and I’m just now noticing that Hyde’s tux is Jekyll-sized, ripped just like the Hulk’s clothes after he transforms, and yet Hyde’s hat is sized for his giant head–you’d think if Hyde had a hat his size, he would also get a suit his size)
And just the next year, Mister Hyde would once again be portrayed as a giant, CGI brute in Paris in Van Helsing (a film that would also feature Richard Roxburgh, who plays our M here).
So they capture Hyde, and now it’s like 40 minutes into a less than two hour film, and finally, the League is complete (after a very brief and perfunctory scene to get Hyde to agree to join the League, after which he transforms back to Jekyll). The Nautilus heads for Venice, and during the trip, we get a few scenes of different characters bonding. Quatermain takes Sawyer under his wing, while it seems that everybody except Nemo and Quatermain have fallen in love with Mina. But Mina only has eyes for Dorian Gray.
They reach Venice, where they have to stop a bomb from sinking the city. There’s an overlong action sequence where they try to outrace the destruction for some silly reason, mainly memorable for only two things: number one, we get to see the full extent of Mina’s vampire badassery, as not only does she climb walls and command flocks of killer bats, but when she vamps out, she gets this awesome perm.
And number two, well, this…
That’s Nemo’s car, now a convertible for some reason, being driven by Tom Sawyer. Today’s Tom Sawyer, a mean, mean ride…
So Venice is saved, and in the process, the Phantom is unmasked.
It’s M! It was all a set-up: the assassins in Kenya, the shoot-out in Dorian Gray’s house, all set up to bring Nemo, Mina, Skinner and Hyde together so that M could steal their secrets through the efforts of his spy, Dorian Gray. Gray takes off in Nemo’s escape pod, and uses bombs to sink the Nautilus. But Jekyll, after having sworn never to become Hyde again, takes his potion so Hyde can save the sub. Yay for the good guys!
Then they receive a transmission from the missing Skinner, who has stowed away aboard Gray’s pod and gives the rest directions on how to follow. Which sets up the final confrontation, as the League try to stop M and Gray from selling their weapons, now including the secrets of making invisible agents (thanks to skin samples taken from Skinner), vampire agents (thanks to blood samples taken from Mina) and gigantic super-brute agents (thanks to a stolen vial of Jekyll’s serum).
So Skinner sets bombs while Nemo and Hyde try to save the captive scientists, Quatermain and Sawyer pursue M, and Mina duels Dorian Gray, whose story seriously makes no sense. In the original novel, Gray kept the portrait hidden in his attic, because it was so corrupt-looking that he was disgusted by it. In the movie, he says explicitly that if he looks at the painting, its magic will be undone and he will die.
But when the group visited Dorian’s house, there was a blank spot showing that the painting had been hanging in the main stairwell. And it is shown in flashback that the painting was not taken down by Dorian, but stolen (it was the leverage M used to get Gray to work for him). So what did he do, exactly? Close his eyes every time he went up and down the stairs?`
Anyway, he and Mina have a farily cool, if brief duel of the immortals, then Mina pins him to the wall with his own sword-cane and shows him the portrait.
Cue the bad CGI.
Seriously, so much of this movie is cool and ambitious, but done in by unconvincing and very obvious CGI. Another case in point: M’s assistant, who drinks a huge beaker of Hyde-potion and turns into an even bigger, more grotesque mutant.
Interesting asymmetrical design with grotesque exposed muscle tissue, but something about the sharpness of the features (were they trying to get a wet gleam to the flesh or what?) combined with excessive camera shake just makes it hard to watch.
On the other hand, there is no problem with this awesome armored flame-thrower guy who fights Tom Sawyer.
That is cool, only slightly diminished by lame CGI flame effects when he burns Skinner, who saves Sawyer’s life before getting torched.
And of course, we get the big reveal that’s a surprise to no one that M is in fact Dr. Moriarty. Quartermain dies saving Sawyer, who returns the favor by finally killing Moriarty as he flees with the stolen secrets.
So somehow everybody survives (even the horribly burned Skinner) except for Quatermain, who is taken back to Africa to be buried (and perhaps resurrected, since a witch doctor promised him that Africa would never let him die). The rest of the League head off together; there is no truth to the rumor that the producers tried to develop a TV series with Doctor Jekyll and Captain Nemo becoming best friends and having adventures together, to be titled Hyde and Sikh.