League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Film Review/Synopsis
By Charles Prepolec
Table of Contents
Disclaimer: The League of Extraordinary Gentleman is TM & © 2000 Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill. The Leaugue of Extraordinary Gentlemen film is copyright © 2003 20th Century Fox. All images are used here for publicity and review purposes only, no ownership is given or implied. Reproduction is strictly prohibited. Design, layout and original content is © 2003 Charles Prepolec. Film news is believed accurate at time of posting. For removal of infringing materials, please contact the Webmaster.
Copyright © 20th Century Fox 2003
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Front Page
After months of anticipation The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has finally reached the screen in the midst of a summer over-loaded with action-packed blockbusters. As overblown mindless summer fare goes, it has some very minor merit, but as an adaptation of a stylish and clever comic book filled with literary characters and Sherlockian overtones, it fails entirely, and does so quite gloriously too.

You’d think that a story based on the rounding up of a team of Victorian literary figures to combat a madman’s threat of global war in 1899, would make for some interesting set pieces, to say nothing of a compelling plot and the opportunity for some cool characterizations. Somehow the production team headed by Don Murphy over at Fox didn’t quite see it that way. Instead they took a perfectly good graphic novel, some well-developed literary characters, screen legend Sean Connery and turned a golden opportunity to make a great film into what has to be, in my opinion, the single worst adaptation from comic to film in recent years. It isn't a total waste of celluloid, but it won't win any awards either...
SPOILERS          -       Plot Synopsis with Some Review Comments       -          SPOILERS
The film opens in 1899 with dramatic thefts and outrages taking place in both London and Berlin. A futuristic armoured tank breaks into the Bank of England to steal DaVinci’s plans for the foundations of Venice, while shortly afterwards in Berlin scientists are abducted and a dirigible hanger is blown to bits. The result; the governments of each country blame the other. We the viewers know better as a masked and scarred figure in a hairy greatcoat with a cheesy Eastern European accent - The Fantom - is shown as the force behind each crime.
Cut to a Gentlemen’s Club in Africa where the Queen’s emissary Sanderson Reed arrives on a quest to recruit legendary, but now aged, hunter and adventurer Allan Quatermain (or as his name is misspelled on a grave marker early in the film – Quartermain). We first see Quatermain sitting in the shadows reading, in a nice subtle touch, what appears from the back to be a copy of The Strand magazine (later in the film we see that is indeed the familiar blue-tinged magazine). The crotchety Quatermain (Sean Connery) has no great patriotic concerns and is not interested, but as luck would have it, a group of armour-plated assassins turn up at just that moment and kill his old drinking buddy Nigel (David Hemmings) right before Quatermain’s eyes, spurring him on to action. In what is possibly the best fight sequence in the film, we then see Quatermain shoot or beat hell out of the attackers near single-handedly, but not before a bomb is left behind destroying the Club. Quatermain is then of course ready to do his patriotic duty.
Once inside Gray’s impressive library we learn that Mina Harker and Gray have some sexual history together and that Gray is an immortal. Quatermain points out that a painting is conspicuously absent on one wall, nudge, nudge, wink, wink. Just as Gray turns down their request to join them in their efforts, The Fantom and a dozen of his men pop out of the woodwork rifles at the ready. A momentary stand-off takes place, during which Quatermain notices one of the henchmen giving him a wink. The whole room erupts in a blazing gunfight when the winking henchman shoots another of The Fantom’s men. This is the first time we see the league in action, and it is a thunderously good fight sequence, high-lighted by individual action moments showcasing the various members.
Nemo utilizes a lightning fast form of martial arts to vanquish his foe, Dorian simply takes a burst of automatic weapons fire in the chest, reveals his wounds to his amazed attacker, who asks “What are you?” to which Dorian responds in a deadpan manner “Complicated” before driving a sword point through the fellow. The Fantom escapes (for the first of many times) and the sequence ends with Mina being held, knife at her throat, by the last remaining thug. Out of the shadows steps the winking gunman, whom we learn is American Secret Service Agent Tom Sawyer (Shane West), ready to come to her aid. Mina remarks that she needs no help, which becomes patently obvious when her eyes suddenly turn completely red and she rips the throat from her assailant and feeds from his neck, while her rather stunned team-mates look on.  In a minor comic moment, Sawyer indicates that she has a bit of blood on her lip and she turns with suitable embarrassment to clean it off. Mina then explains something of her background in the Dracula affair and reveals her scarred neck. The previously reluctant Dorian agrees to join the League when the other members suggest that Agent Sawyer would be a good replacement for him.
His plan is to round up a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen to combat the threat of The Fantom and ensure world peace, by stopping him from destroying Venice. 'M’ has his roster planned and we first meet the legendary science-pirate Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah), followed by the invisible Cockney thief Rodney Skinner (Tony Curran who is woefully under-used here) and finally Mrs. Mina Harker (Peta Wilson of television’s La Femme Nikita) who is, we are told, a chemist of some note. Friction between members is played up for a few moments but curiously absent from the remainder of the film. Before they can set off to save the world, two more members must be rounded up, so into Nemo’s newly created six-wheeled ‘auto-mobile’ and off to London’s East End to the home of Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend).
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Quatermain arrives in London, quipping that his voyage wasn’t as quick as that of Phileas Fogg (nice allsuion, but spolied by Quatermain explaining the reference), and is taken into the bowels of an impressive Whitehall building. There, in a darkened underground meeting room, he meets the mysterious 'M' (Richard Roxburgh, fresh from playing Sherlock Holmes in the BBC Hound of the Baskervilles,  here sporting a rather seedy moustache and dark hair-dye).
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Copyright © 20th Century Fox 2003
Off to the docks where Nemo unveils his submarine – Nautilus. Looking like a giant scimitar as it rises from the depths; the group is stunned by the extraordinarily huge vessel, as was this viewer since the damn thing looked about 10 stories tall! A panel opens, a plank is lowered and Nemo’s first mate (“Call me Ishmael”) welcomes them aboard before they head off to France to round-up the League’s last recruit.
Cut to the streets of Paris at night where Quatermain and Sawyer are stalking a beast leaping from building to building up on the rooftops overlooking the Rue Morgue. The beast is knocked from a roof and dragged back to the Nautilus in a net, where we find the huge beast is actually the misshapen Mr. Hyde (Jason Flemyng under a mass of foam rubber) who quickly, in a series of CGI stages, reverts to the meek and haunted Dr. Jekyll. The team complete, the Nautilus sets off for Venice. Some mostly shallow character development is injected along the way as Quatermain bonds with young Sawyer while teaching him to shoot effectively rather than in “The American style” and we learn that Quatermain is haunted by the loss of his son. Sawyer hits on Mina but his clumsy advance is quickly rebuffed by the very non-Victorian vampiress (who inexplicably has no trouble walking about on the deck of the Nautilus in full daylight). Mina and Dorian then reveal a bit of their past as the anxious Jekyll looks on, taunted by the voice and image (visible to Jekyll in any reflective surface) of Hyde all the while. Seeds of a traitor in their midst are planted when flash powder is found in the wheel room of the Nautilus and a vial of Jekyll’s serum is determined to be missing. Naturally, in the most obvious red-herring tradition, all think that invisible thief Skinner is theculprit, but absolutely nothing is done about it and Skinner is nowhere to be found.
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We are shown that a series of bombs are somewhere under the city, but our reluctant heroes have no idea where, until they start to detonate and begin toppling buildings in a domino effect, one explosion after another. To stop the total destruction of Venice it is decided that knocking one of the buildings out of the sequence is the only way to stop the chain of explosions. Yes, you read that right, the plan to stop a series of buildings from exploding is by blowing up a building. To achieve this, Nemo has a missile that can be fired from the Nautilus at the building in question, but only if a beacon can be set in place. So, since Nemo can track his fancy ‘auto-mobile’, the League piles in with Sawyer at the wheel (why Agent Sawyer knows how to operate the only vehicle of its kind in the world is anyone’s guess) and go racing along the streets (?) of Venice.  Inexplicably, dozens of The Fantom’s gunmen appear along the rooftops and start firing on the speeding vehicle. Dorian drops out of the car for no apparent reason and disappears.
It is with the arrival of the Nautilus in Venice that the film, more pointedly the plot, rapidly begins to fall apart.  A carnival in the Piazza San Marco is fully underway as the impossibly huge Nautilus sails up the narrow canals of Venice, apparently with no trouble until it comes to a stop under a bridge where it can go no further.
Moments later Mina too takes her leave by turning into what looks to be a massive swarm of bats, which provide cover from the gun shots overhead. She materializes from time to time, feeding on the snipers in a great effects sequence. In all fairness, the vampire bit works well within the framework of the film, but I still miss the very Victorian Mina of the graphic novel, to say nothing of Stoker’s Dracula.
Quatermain too bails from the vehicle to give chase to The Fantom on foot. The two fight it out in a graveyard (?) where Quatermain dislodges The Fantom’s mask who, before he makes his escape (again), is now revealed to be none other than the mysterious ‘M’, surprising absolutely no one. Meanwhile, back at the Nautilus, the first mate discovers a bomb he believes was planted by the invisible Skinner, but is quickly proven wrong when Dorian Gray shoots him at point blank range for his troubles. At the same time we see Sawyer crash the car into the target building, while firing a flare, which signals Nemo to launch his missile. The building is destroyed, the chain of explosions stops and Venice is saved. Half of it is rubble, but hell, what’s a little devastation in the greater scheme of things?
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Nemo sets the Nautilus in pursuit, but moments later a record is found and played on a gramophone. The voice of ‘M’ floods the room, and we see the recording session as black and white footage in flashback, while he reveals the scope of his plans. Everything leading up to this moment is revealed as a ruse so that 'M' could steal elements from each of the League members to construct an army of super-powered soldiers based on the chemical make-up of each of the more freakish members of the League. In short, 'M' wants to supply futuristic weapons and soldiers to fuel the coming war, or start the war, or something along those lines. While the record plays on, Jekyll sees his Hyde persona reflected in a porthole, the beast has his hands clamped over his ears and pleads with Jekyll to stop the record, just as 'M' discloses that another track has been playing on the record at a frequency outside human hearing which is set to trigger the bombs planted by Dorian. Already too late Nemo smashes the gramophone and bombs go off in the bowels of the submarine.
The League re-groups at the Nautilus, where Quatermain reveals that ‘M’ is behind the whole thing, when the near-dead Ishmael reveals that Dorian is the traitor, not Skinner. At that moment a small submersible vessel breaks from the Nautilus and Dorian makes good his escape with a smile and wave to the assembled League.
Chaos ensues as lower decks flood, with Nemo’s crewman trapped by the water. To release the water Jekyll takes his formula and dives into the flooded chamber. A great underwater effects sequence shows Jekyll transform into Hyde who then uses his massive strength to save the vessel. Once again in pursuit of Dorian, a Morse code message is received from Skinner, who has stowed away on Dorian’s escape vessel, revealing the co-ordinates of M’s hideout somewhere in a remote and frozen Mongolian sea.
The Nautilus breaks up from under the ice and our heroes trek across the frozen wastes to a cave overlooking M’s flame and smoke belching industrial fortress. Skinner appears and tells them that M has a number of scientists and their families held as hostages and slave labor in his munitions factory. Splitting into teams, the League infiltrates the factory and battle against various threats. Nemo and Hyde attempt to free the scientists and their families while Sawyer and Quatermain go after M, Mina goes for Dorian, while Skinner sets off to plant some explosives.
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Sawyer, thinking that he’s met up with the invisible Skinner, breaks from Quatermain, only to discover that it is one of M’s goons who has taken the invisibility serum. To further complicate matters an armored goon with a flamethrower also turns up and nearly fries the American agent, but is saved by Skinner who becomes partially visible when his skin is badly burned in the conflagration. Meanwhile Nemo and Hyde run up against M’s right-hand man Dante (Max Ryan) leading yet another group of armoured machine-gun wielding goons. When the gunmen are quickly beaten by Hyde and Nemo, Dante desperately downs a full beaker of Jekyll’s serum (“Oh no, not the whole thing”) that quickly turns him into a massive and powerful CGI monster. The CGI monster-Dante is about 5 or 10 times the size of Hyde, which makes for an oddly goofy and highly unbelievable battle sequence. It gets even more absurd when Nemo jumps into the fray with his faster than the eye can follow bit of swordwork. Neat idea, but the execution was lacking as the faster than eye movements are exactly that. Simultaneously, Mina has her showdown with the deceitful Dorian, who decays before her eyes when she shows him his portrait.
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Copyright © 20th Century Fox 2003
Copyright © 20th Century Fox 2003
Quatermain confronts M in his lair (he has now shaved off the seedy moustache) where it is revealed that M is none other than…gasp…the supposedly late Professor James Moriarty, who did not perish at Reichenbach as the world believed. Quatermain, holding Moriarty at gunpoint, sees in a reflection that an invisible goon has Sawyer held at knifepoint behind him, he turns and shoots the goon, only to be stabbed in the back by Moriarty just before making another escape and fleeing across the ice. The mortally wounded Quatermain implores young Sawyer to use the long-range shooting skills he taught him to take down Moriarty, which he does successfully. Our heroes make their escape from the factory moments before it explodes, the explosion finally destoying the beast that Dante had become.

The final sequence of the film takes place in Africa, where the group has assembled to bury
Quatermain (under a cross marked ‘Quartermain’). After the group departs a tribal witch doctor appears and performs a ritual at the grave. Viewers paying attention earlier in the film will recall that Quatermain had explained Africa would not let him die because of a witch doctor’s blessing. So when the rifle left by Sawyer atop the grave begins to shake violently before the screen fades to black, there is no doubt that the door is being left wide-open for a sequel.
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Copyright © 20th Century Fox 2003
The cast is all over the map in terms of acting and characterization. Connery overshadows the whole thing, unfortunately not in a positive manner, since he is simply Connery playing a caricature of Connery. It is
quite clear that he doesn't give a damn about the material or simply doesn't understand it (which is not surprising given the incomprehensible mess that is the script) and as a result delivers an appallingly flat performance. I used to be a pretty big Sean Connery fan, but after seeing The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen on Friday night, I found myself wondering why exactly.

The rest of the cast manages to cruise along in the star's shadow with varying degrees of success. Jason Flemyng as both the meek Dr. Jekyll and the monstrous Hyde was likely the best character work in the film, creating a separate yet whole effect to his tortured character. I found myself wishing that I were watching an adaptation of Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Jason Flemyng instead of LXG, as I found him to be that good.

Tony Curran as the invisible Cockney thief Rodney Skinner had massive fun potential, but was horribly underused. Sure the lovable Cockney thief is a wretched film stereotype, but at least if it had been used to full effect there might have been a few more intentional laughs in the film. Which would have been very welcome.

Naseeruddin Shah as Captain Nemo just about managed to carve out an interesting characterization. For the first time the Indian Captain Nemo was portrayed by an Indian actor, which I applaud whole-heartedly, unfortunately Shah is a little on the slight side to create the sort of menacing presence that I associate with the character. That being said, he has these wonderfully expressive eyes that seemed to give his character more depth than most of the others, even though he no more dialogue or opportunity to do so than any of his cast-members. After Flemyng’s Jekyll/Hyde, Shah’s Nemo is my second favorite piece of work in the film.

Peta Wilson’s Mina Harker was probably furthest from her literary or even comic book roots, as she is characterized as a somewhat stern but sexually charged creature, particularly in her vampire moments. The script gives Wilson little dialogue to make use of, so consequently her character, over-the-top as she is, still falls flat.

Stuart Townsend as Dorian Gray takes a stab at bringing some nonchalant fun to the proceedings, but unfortunately Dorian’s decadent nature only comes off as school-boyish innuendo. His immortality and invulnerability made him seem like something from The Highlander series. The dark long hair, goatee, moustache and bad suit certainly in no way resembled the image of Oscar Wilde’s Adonis-like Dorian Gray.

Shane West as Agent Tom Sawyer I expected to really hate, as the character was clearly written into the script so that American viewers might have someone to connect with, even though his presence is entirely pointless from a plot perspective. Surprisingly, I found myself liking Shane West’s Sawyer in spite of myself, the character was still pointless, but West managed a good line in goofy-simple American charm, it also didn’t hurt that his character had no negative background traits and was given the most to do after Connery since Quatermain looked on the boy as a sort of surrogate son. No great impact, but at least he wasn’t offensive!

Finally, we come to Richard Roxburgh. Oh dear, he has now solidly convinced me that I really should avoid any further films or television programs that he appears in since he has now been not only an awful Sherlock Holmes but an even worse Moriarty. The less said about his performance the better.

Production values are fine, although much of the film is so dark that much detail just isn't visible. Costumes looked generally good, if from a slightly later period. CGI Effects somewhat inconsistent, but overall impressive looking with some sequences far better than others.


The Bottom Line for Sherlockians:

For Sherlockians, there is little here worth seeing. A copy of The Strand magazine and a completely pointless characterization of Professor Moriarty just don’t cut it from a Sherlock Holmes perspective, and I haven't even gone into the problems for fans of the comic book series/graphic novel. As simply a bit of mindless summer action fare, I suspect you will be better served by Pirates of the Caribbean. If you simply must see The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, well, wait for the DVD, who knows…there might be something worth seeing in the extras…much as I'd hoped for a great film, it just didn't happen.
Random Thoughts and Notes: