First, they aren’t all extraordinary. Second, they aren’t all gentlemen. And third, they’re not in much of a movie.
What can you say about a seriously intended adventure flick that takes its principal plot device straight from the spoof Casino Royale, having Sean Connery’s Allan Quatermain “bombed, bullied and baited out of retirement” just as David Niven’s Sir James Bond was 36 years ago? The only significant difference is that the bombing of Bond’s house was a lot more believable than the atrociously superimposed explosion that “levels” Quatermain’s African retreat. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg of problems with this misguided, misbegotten mess.
It takes a certain kind of talent to sanitize a comic book and then dumb it down, but that’s exactly what’s been done to this brainchild of Alan Moore (From Hell) and Kevin O’Neill, which brings together a number of great figures from literature and sets them out on new adventures. Their comic book rethought the characters as more complex and convoluted than the originals.
The aging version of the Quatermain character (originally drawn from H. Rider Haggard’s novels and stories) is an opium junkie in Moore and O’Neill’s vision; there’s no hint of that addiction in the film. The comics presented the … excuse me …an Invisible Man (the H.G. Wells novel still being under copyright) who uses his interesting powers to pursue the avocation of rapist (an idea possibly cribbed from the old National Lampoon comic strip about Vinny Shinblind “the Invisible Sex Maniac”). But in the movie, Mr. Transparent is nothing more than a cheeky, lower-class thief who happened to steal the carefully never-named Jack Griffin’s formula.
Not content with just softening the material, screenwriter James Dale Robinson plays fast and loose with the characters in other ways. Dracula’s Mina Harker (Peta Wilson) is mystifyingly a full-blown vampire prone to ripping out throats and turning into a flock of CGI bats (they look more like pigeons), despite the fact she can strut around in broad daylight and casts a reflection in mirrors. Dr. Jekyll (Jason Flemyng) and his CGI alter-ego Mr. Hyde (who looks way too much like the Hulk) have little in common with the Robert Louis Stevenson originals.
And apparently just for good measure, the movie drags in Oscar Wilde’s character of Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend) and Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer (Shane West). Since Twain never got around to dealing with a grown-up Tom, it’s hard to say much about the characterization, but it’s to be hoped that the venerable author would have come up with something more interesting than the dim-bulb hunk of the film. Dorian Gray, on the other hand, is “improved upon.” Here, he not only doesn’t age, he’s also indestructible — a trait that seems to extend to his clothing, which repairs bullet holes in seconds. And I have no idea when, where or how Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah) has become a martial arts expert who wields a sword like a first-rate chef in a Japanese steakhouse. Then there’s the character of “M” (Richard Roxburgh), a James Bondian variant on the comic book’s interpolation of Mycroft Holmes.
Without giving away the film’s plot, I can say that The League ultimately turns “M” into just about the furthest thing from Holmes. Why? I haven’t a clue, nor do I much care. In fact, might have cared more in general if the outcome had been entertaining, but this movie ultimately falls down on that front. It’s mostly a shoddy mess.
The special effects are sometimes incredibly slipshod. Carol Spier, David Cronenberg’s designer, gave the film a gorgeous art nouveau look, but the execution is wanting to the degree that you can actually see where the CGI effects end and the matte paintings begin. The results look less like a finished movie than a rough sketch for one. The plot — involving a madman bent on world domination (now, there’s an original idea!) — is hopelessly muddled, and the action scenes not much better. The big moments just plain aren’t (we wait for reels and reels for the inevitable Dorian Gray meltdown with his painting; when we finally get it, it’s a cheesy throwaway scene lasting scant seconds).
Director Stephen Norrington evidenced a much better understanding of this kind of material in Blade, making his mishandling of the film hard to understand. The screenplay itself has little comprehension of its literary sources; the height of its creativity is having Nemo’s chauffeur tell the League, “Call me Ishmael.” (Possibly the driver wandered in from another seafaring novel?) It never gets any better.
Nor are the performances anything to brag about. Sean Connery chews up the scenery, spits it out and chews it up again; he spouts variable one-liners and acts at — rather than with — the other players. That’s not hard to understand, perhaps, but it doesn’t help a movie that’s badly in need of all the assistance it can get.
So is League watchable? Barely. I didn’t actively hate it, and I don’t regret having seen it, but it’s nothing I’d ever want to see again, and nothing I’d actually recommend.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke