This review was amended on July 10, 2003.
The dawn of the age of superheroes and weapons of mass destruction is imagined in fanciful but literally overblown terms in “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.” Operating from a disarming premise that brings together several of the late 19th century’s most celebrated literary figures to battle an evil mastermind of unprecedented ambition and technological means, this highly elaborate venture offers some appealing elements — exceptionally beautiful design, atypical characters, literacy and an intriguing intellectual basis — that are ultimately engulfed by explosions, effects and an affiliated ponderousness. Commercially, one must begin by asking whether the international youth audience will be much interested in a picture populated by such 100-plus-year-old names as Allan Quatermain, Dorian Gray, Jekyll and Hyde, Captain Nemo and, of all people, Tom Sawyer. The answer is almost certainly no, which spells a dicey B.O. future for this obviously pricey 20th Century Fox release.
After a century marked by mass annihilation or the threat of it, and by tyrants who wreaked havoc on an unprecedented scale, “League” harks back to a time — 1899 — when violent evil perhaps had narrower, more specific targets. It thus comes as a shock to late Victorian London when a terrorist known as the Fantom is able to invade the Bank of England with a tank and, after destabilizing the continent, plots to blow up Venice during an emergency conference there among all the Euro heads of state.
But given the lack, back then, of what we now know as superheroes, or even of someone like James Bond, a British gent with the conspicuous name of M (Richard Roxburgh) gathers together several famous and variously gifted figures to stop the Fantom in the four days that are left before the gathering on the lagoon.
They are: the Indiana Jones of his time, legendary hunter-adventurer of “King Solomon’s Mines” Allan Quatermain (Sean Connery, who might as well be playing the old James here); Jules Verne’s brilliant underwater nomad Captain Nemo (Indian cinema vet Naseeruddin Shah); Oscar Wilde’s ageless and indestructible aesthete Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend); the equally invulnerable scientist-turned-vampire Mina Harker (Peta Wilson); invisible man Rodney Skinner (Tony Curran); the brilliant Dr. Jekyll and his beastly alter ego Mr. Hyde (Jason Flemyng); and last and, under these circumstances, definitely least, Tom Sawyer (Shane West), the former Mississippi River rat who turns up here as a member of the Secret Service.
Even if these characters mean little or nothing to many viewers, they are introduced with a certain brio by “Blade” director Stephen Norrington, working from a screenplay by James Dale Robinson that warmly embraces but doesn’t overdo the literary refs already in place in the comicbooks by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill. For starters, there are large egos involved, not to mention some back story: Quatermain distrusts the “pirate” Nemo; Mina Harker and Dorian Gray had an affair some years back; Skinner and Jekyll/Hyde are outcasts of dubious standing; and all have questionable loyalty to, or enthusiasm for, the Crown.
But more striking still is the world these living legends inhabit. Dark, gilded and resplendent with the trappings of empire at its height, the innumerable settings created by production designer Carol Spier, abetted by arresting natural locations and the work of more than a dozen visual effects houses, create an alluring environment rooted firmly in the past but edging into the future. The obviously artificial but vividly rendered look most recalls those of Alex Proyas’ “The Crow” and “Dark City,” except set in recognizable turn-of-the-20th-century Europe.
In this time when secret technology far outstrips that visible in everyday life, the group is able to speed to Venice on Nemo’s enormous and elegant Nautilus submarine, which looks 10 times the size of the beauty featured in “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” nearly 50 years ago. But they’re almost too late: Shortly after the Nautilus plows down the canals looking for explosives, underwater bombs start going off that start the city tumbling down, and only some heroic fast-thinking prevents its total destruction. In short order, Quatermain unmasks the Fantom, and the final act is devoted to increasingly ordinary excuses for mayhem before the de rigueur fireworks of the finale.
Far too little effort is paid to creating a compelling villain; for most of the time, he’s just a disfigured fellow behind a silver mask. A fascinating bad guy is always a worthwhile commodity in fare like this, and the material presented a ready opportunity for one, a sinister genius whose visionary ways with technology is perhaps only approached by that of Nemo. That opposition alone could have provided a fertile rivalry.
It’s easy to imagine that, had such a film been made in an earlier era, the late ’30s, for instance, when the limitations upon special effects would have forced the emphasis onto personal drama, much more would have been made of the confluence of these colorful characters, all of whom were Hollywood staples at one time or another.
As it is, they are competently realized on the outside, but are given no inner life and few individualistic wrinkles. Quatermain is an all-purpose prince of the realm who resents the (slight) incursions of age; Nemo is a devout Hindu with pronounced anti-Brit sentiments; Skinner is almost as invisible dramatically as he is physically; Dorian Gray, who is immortal as long as he doesn’t peer upon his portrait, is an unreliable dilettante when it comes to crime fighting; Harker is able to instigate bat attacks when needed; while Sawyer (who is never referred to as Tom onscreen) is the odd man out, seemingly dragged in despite his limited talents just to have an American on board.
Robinson’s script is alive to the material’s literary roots, although there is a sense that the brakes have been applied so as not to push into territory perceived as too esoteric for American teenagers. All the characters are invested with a prideful dimension that makes them reluctant to share the stage with others of their stature, and at least a couple of them are not without some wit about themselves. Some serve the story’s purposes better than others, and aside from Sawyer, the Jekyll/Hyde creation is least successful, mainly because the ungainly and heavily muscled Hyde resembles an unfortunate combination of the Hulk and Fat Bastard.
Script is also gracefully unemphatic about its intentional prophetic side, suggesting the conflict to come with WWI 15 years hence, as well as the greater and more unimaginable horrors awaiting further along in the century, without pretentiousness or self-importance.
Except for a few clumsy perspectives of Venice toppling down, effects are fun and beautiful to watch, and pic is a visual treat, with key contributions coming from lenser Dan Laustsen and costume designer Jacqueline West. Trevor Jones’ score rumbles with ominous vigor behind much of the action.