Should I Watch..? 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen'
What's the big deal?
The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen (widely promoted and also known as LXG) is a period action superhero film released in 2003 and is based on the comic book series of the same name created by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill. The film is set in an alternative universe where famous literary characters work alongside each other fighting evil forces in a steam-punk setting. The film was intended to be the first in a series but a negative critical response, legal issues and the abrupt retirement of its leading man meant that a sequel has never been fully considered - however, rumours abound of a potential reboot. The film stars Sean Connery, Peta Wilson, Shane West, Richard Roxburgh, Stuart Townsend and Jason Flemyng and was directed by Stephen Norrington, his last movie to date. The film went on to earn over $173 million worldwide but is considered a massive waste of so much potential.
What's it about?
In 1899, Europe stands on the brink of war. A terrorist group led by a mysterious masked figure known as the Fantom strikes seemingly at will, first by capturing a number of German scientists before breaking into the Bank Of England and stealing plans. Such is the chaos being caused that retired adventurer Allan Quartermain is called back to England from Kenya by the mysterious M who announces that he is reforming a secret society of exceptional individuals. With the likes of explorer Captain Nemo, vampiric chemist Mina Harker and the invisible thief Rodney Skinner, M charges the League with preventing the Fantom from assassinating world leaders at a conference in Venice.
On the way, the League also recruits additional support from the immortal Dorian Gray, US Secret Agent Tom Sawyer and Dr Henry Jekyll but it quickly emerges that things are not what they seem. For starters, the League are beset by forces loyal to the Fantom while the sneaky Skinner quickly disappears for good. Fearing a traitor in their midst, the League have no choice but to press on Venice on board the Nautilus where dark forces await them...
Rodney Skinner / An Invisible Man
Dr Henry Jekyll / Mr Hyde
James Robinson *
Release Date (UK)
17th October, 2003
Action, Adventure, Fantasy
What's to like?
There's no doubt that the film's premise is a sure-fire winner and not just because it stemmed from the creative juices of Alan Moore. It allows the film to indulge in some truly lush visuals with costumes, prop and set design all straight out of the top drawer. Take the Nautilus rising out of the sea or Sawyer's excessively weird car, a stretched six-wheeled monster with ornate Gothic detailing. It's an easy film to watch and admire, assuming you pay no attention to the narrative or cast.
Actually, that's unfair. I enjoyed Townsend's foppish dandy Dorian and Curran's Cockney pickpocket even though nobody is allowed any screen time to develop their characters. The film lurches from one explosive sequence to the next with very little in the way of exposition while the characters feel little more than computer sprites, levelling up as they dispatch more anonymous baddies than the entire Expendables franchise. In fact, that may be its biggest problem - the film looks too good because so much of it is CG. As rich and detailed as this bizarre world is, it doesn't feel authentic or lived-in so the whole film exists in an odd dream-like state. As a result, what thrills and spills are intended instead leave you feeling cold and disinterested.
- Connery and Norrington had a particularly difficult working relationship. Norrington didn't even attend the film's premier and has never directed again after this film's release, citing excessive studio interference and being "uncomfortable" with large crews.
- The character of Skinner is actually an original one, based on The Invisible Man by HG Wells. Fox were unable to secure the rights to the novel so simply invented a new character that stole the formula from the original Invisible Man, Griffin.
- Alan Moore was so unhappy at the treatment of his work that afterwards, he refused to have his name credited on any subsequent adaptation of his work. This includes adaptations of V For Vendetta and Watchmen, considered by many to be Moore's masterpiece.
What's not to like?
What really bugs me about this film, one that I seriously wanted to like, was the complete lack of thought invested into it once the initial premise had been set up. With an eclectic group of characters in a rich and interesting world, LXG manages to be a completely dull and stupid exercise in CG destruction and moronic lapses in logic and cohesion. Take the whole nonsense in Venice where characters hide in graveyards and high speed car chases are entirely possible. Instead of being a straight-up adaptation of the source material (which is an excellent read), all the film does is throw these characters into a sub-standard action film and ignores the narrative of the comics completely.
Now I realise that some readers, perhaps even you, might argue that the film is meant to be a throwaway piece of escapism and I do agree with you on that. But escapism has to be enthralling, exciting and entertaining and I'm afraid that LXG is none of these things. It's a poorly made film with a cast made up of actors mostly in awe of Connery, who looks bored and bewildered most of the time, and it completely wastes all of its potential in the worst way possible. It pretends to be a rollocking good yarn, full of interesting characters and just when you get sucked in, it lets itself go and lets you down.
Should I watch it?
The best thing that can be said about LXG is that it is a masterclass of film design. It looks the business - sadly it is not the film to study if you wanted to learn about story-telling, direction or acting. It feels as though the film-makers thought that the premise was enough to sustain it but if anything, all this film does is flush its ideas and promising opening down the toilet by being a brainless CG exercise and not the intriguing adventure it should have been. No wonder Norrington has been out of work ever since.
Great For: idiots, anyone who hasn't read the comics, retiring acting legends
Not So Great For: fans of the comic, Alan Moore's distrust of Hollywood, anyone looking for a fun movie
What else should I watch?
Without question, the best film adaptation of Alan Moore's work is Watchmen which is a deep and disturbing film that subverts the superhero genre and plays merrily with audience expectations. However, it still takes some liberties with the source material (despite efforts made to mirror the graphic novel panel-by-panel) and succumbs to the Hollywood trappings of explicit content and glorified violence. It's not even close - V For Vendetta, while inspiring the mask-wearing anarchists we see on the news every day, received a fairly mixed reception from critics and the less said about From Hell and Constantine, the better.
Steampunk (or more specifically dieselpunk) often refers to the look and feel of a film rather than a setting and more often than not, it tends to get misunderstood. From hideous failures like Wild Wild West and the 2011 version of The Three Musketeers to the box office humbling of Martin Scorsese's Hugo, it seems that Hollywood hasn't quite figured out how to make the most of this style of aesthetic just yet.
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© 2017 Benjamin Cox