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The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
Tonight's Feature Presentation

THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN (2003)

Starring: Sean Connery, Peta Wilson, Naseeruddin Shah, Tony Curran, Stuart Townsend, Shane West, Jason Felmyng, Richard Roxburgh

Written By: James Dale Robinson (Graphic Novel By Alan Moore & Kevin O'Neill)

Directed By: Stephen Norrington

The Short Version

Hope you’ve read some books, or you’re going to miss a lot of things.

Zomg Steampunk!

Peta Wilson is amazing.

Everyone signed contracts to make this movie plus two sequels; you’ll notice that they never made the sequels.

Ultimately, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen fails… but it’s still worth seeing.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

HOLIDAY GIFT BOX.

The ones your Wisconsin relatives send you at the holidays with six different cheese logs, a few spreads, and maybe some crackers and sausage to go with.  Some of it’s good, some of it’s not, and half of it doesn’t really go with the other half very well.


Pairs Well With...

7 & 7.*

With how confuzzled the dramatis personae gets with itself, it’s tempting to do what the filmmakers/graphic novelists did and go with a wapatui: pour in a bunch of liquor of mixed origins and see what happens.  But I don’t want you going blind, so figure that since there are 7 members of the League, just make yourself a 7 & 7 and call it a day. 

* That’s 7-Up and Seagram’s 7, even proportions, for the uninitiated.

“Very American.  Fire enough bullets and hope to hit the target.”


It’s ironic that a movie that went out of its way to include an American character to keep itself from being “too European” and somehow offending American audiences can best be defined by a quote from its lead character designed to offend an American.

Welcome to the barely contained confusion that is The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

While based in theory upon a graphic novel which in turns takes its characters from all over 19th century literature, the timing is a little more dubious than that.  The original graphic novel hadn’t even been published yet when The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen went into pre-production (and thence immediately beginning to take liberties with its inspiration, so of course the two don’t match).  If that sounds like rushing things to you, then you’ve already got an excellent idea of much of what’s wrong with the movie.  Even when it’s standing still, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen always feels rushed.

Part of this, of course, comes from the task of assembling the League.  There are seven principal characters, each of whom has a long and complex story (at least one novel apiece, as it turns out; most more) that needs to be at least glossed upon as they show up.  There are also several supporting characters with long and complex stories (at least one novel apiece, as it turns out; some more) that may or may not be given the opportunity for glossing over, but they still take a few moments of screen time to say “hi.”  (Or, perhaps, “Call me Ishmael.”  I hope you catch that reference, and I really hope that it’s not from a phone commercial that you do.)  It takes so long to assemble the bunch that we’re at the scene of the final act of the movie barely a half hour later, and we still don’t have everyone’s story!

Time is the enemy here.  These characters are rich enough that they need more attention from the start, but some idiot decided that The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen had to clock in at an hour and three quarters-ish, and so, the most compelling element of the entire film – the composition of the League itself – is glossed over too fast.  I truly, sincerely hope that you’ll have read all of the books these characters come from whether you intend to see this movie or not, but if you didn’t (as, frankly, most of the American audience the producers were so worried about will not have done), you’re screwed.  Sometimes, a sentence or two is enough to get you by, but sometimes it’s not.  It’s especially ironic that while the most screen time given to any recruit goes to Sean Connery’s Alan Quatermain, I am willing to bet that even after the movie’s over, the majority of the audience still has no idea who Alan Quatermain is and went along with his importance mainly because he’s being played by Sean Connery.  Setting aside the sad commentary on education that this is, it’s also a sad commentary on the screenplay.  Quatermain and his cohorts deserve better, for these characters truly are extraordinary.  A two and a half hour runtime and a script revamp that extended the recruitment of the League into the second act might have done the trick.

But no, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has to rush, rush, rush!  After all, our toybox is full of lots more cool references than just the cast of characters!  Look at all of this cool stuff!  Just don’t blink because supper’s almost done and Mommy says we have only a few minutes!  See where I’m going here?  The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is very much like a precocious little kid who can’t wait to show the adult who’s come over for a visit all the neat toys in his room.  The kid really, really wants to impress you – hell, his heart’s pretty much bursting with excitement – but he’s only got a few minutes so he starts talking so fast and hopes you like him enough to come back for another visit because we’ll have lots more time then and… hey, come back!

Unfortunately for our metaphorical little kid, he lives at Director Stephen Norrington’s house.  The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is Norrington’s fourth time in the chair, and also his last.  He quit working as a Director immediately after this film, deciding that didn’t like it anymore.  I think I speak for many when I say that he should have quit sooner, because he murders this movie.  Given an inspired premise and a wonderful cast, Norrington does a thoroughly uninspired, cut and paste style job at the helm, even managing to make parts of the movie feel downright slow despite the fact that the story continues to be rushed.  Yes, he had challenges to face (your sets getting flooded out will do that), but frankly, that’s no excuse.  So does every other Director.  Stephen Norrington just isn’t up to the task, and he runs this movie into the ground.

He also, alas, took Sean Connery’s career with it.  Connery had already been on the fence; his time with Stephen Norrington sealed it.  Once The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was done, Connery quit acting, his passion for it gone.  (He will only do voice work now, and even at that, only three times in eight years.)  It is unfortunate that one can see that passion fading before one’s eyes even during this movie.  Connery will always own the screen, and is still great to watch – he just has that kind of presence – but Quatermain lacks the spark Connery provides most of his other characters.

Others in the cast, however, more than make up for it.  Starting at the top, Peta Wilson is absolutely amazing as Mina Harker.  Intensity, danger, femme fatale quality, intellect, physicality – Peta Wilson brings all of this to the role and more.  Even if the League as a whole had no future, Wilson’s performance is such that she could easily have warranted a follow up film of her own, and rates a serious contender for top ten or even top five positioning in all-time portrayals of an onscreen vampire.  Despite the fact that his character is invisible, Tony Curran steals the show every time he does/doesn’t appear on screen.  (But don’t call him The Invisible Man – there are rights issues there, so he’s a guy who stole from The Invisible Man, and even then, not by that name.)  If Curran’s not having an absolute blast with this role, he does a good job of hiding it.  Naseeruddin Shah plays a very compelling Captain Nemo even with more limited material to work with than his storied character deserves.  Jason Flemyng is so good as Dr. Jekyll that it’s almost (but not quite) possible to get past how completely and utterly ridiculous Mr. Cartoo- er., Mr. Hul- er., Mr. Hyde looks.  Stuart Townsend really should leave the bad (and I do mean bad, not to mention obvious) Johnny Depp impersonation at home, but even at that, he manages to make it work for his portrayal of Dorian Gray.  Rounding things out, Shane West does a very good job imagining what a grown-up Tom Sawyer would be like, nailing the charm while also adding on some maturity… but not too much.  (If you’re wondering at all the “American” comments, by the way, Sawyer’s character was added on late because the producers worried that American audiences wouldn’t care about a movie that didn’t have any American characters in it.  This seems rather like suggesting that everyone in the United States actually goes to see James Bond movies because of Felix Leiter, don’t you think?  Bloody stupid.)

It is because of the efforts of these cast members, and the visible potential and remarkable premise of the story that they’re playing in, that I will still recommend seeing The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, despite all of its flaws.

And getting back to those flaws…

As noted, the premise of bringing some of the most interesting (and not always easily matched) characters of 19th Century literature together as a league of heroes is, well, extraordinary.  The reimagined world of 1899 (some characters have been moved around in time to be there, but such is artistic license, and it’s all good) makes for a wonderful setting, combining the fantasy and adventure of our characters with a little bit of Steampunk.  (Though, perhaps to its misfortune, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen just missed the wave of the Steampunk renaissance.)  Unfortunately, the screenplay just doesn’t know where to go with these things next.  The twist in the middle of the movie is on the one hand perfectly fine from a character perspective, but its execution plays off as so utterly contrived and convoluted that my jaw literally dropped when it happened, even though I’d seen the film several times before.  The climax is built on a plot point whose existence isn’t even mentioned beforehand in the released cut of the film; even in the deleted scenes, it only gets a single sentence of mention in advance.  If not for the fabulous duel in which Peta Wilson is involved (I’ll keep the other participant’s name to myself for those who don’t like spoilers), the series of final battles wouldn’t even be all that exciting.  The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen plays very much like a movie that just wants to establish itself now so it can get things right in the sequel… but the result is a film that got such a poor reception that the sequels never happened and its legendary lead actor quit in some disgust.

And so, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen turns out to be The Extraordinary Premise and Great Cast in a Mediocre Film.  Watch it on the couch on a rainy day, or maybe when you’re sick and need some entertaining.  This isn’t a destination film, but it’s good enough to reach for when it’s there.  Think of it as a day trip in lieu of a real vacation.

Bottom line, this could have been, and should have been, a great movie.  And damn, something deep inside this flick desperately wants to be.  But in the end, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen doesn’t take its own advice:

“You have to feel the shot. Take your time with it. You have all the time you need. All the time in the world.”

Instead, they rushed it, and so, alas, this is the last we get to see of Peta Wilson as Mina Harker, and the last we get to see of Sean Connery as anything.

Doom Cheez Cinema is now Cinema on the Rocks. Thank you for your support!

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, September, 2011

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