The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)

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

Directed by: Stephen Norrington

Rating: 1 2 3

Ever seen a film where the back story is so huge that it threatens to overwhelm the action of the plot itself? It's a common trait of fantasy films: I'm thinking, for starters, Interview with the Vampire and Underworld, both of which continually make you feel as if you're missing something, that there's a lot going on in the background that you don't know about and which is probably much more interesting than what you're currently watching.

Sean Connery as Allan Quartermain  Stuart Townsend as Dorian Gray  Jason Flemyng as Dr Jekyll  Shane West as Tom Sawyer

So what do you do, then, when your back story is based on some of the most fascinating works of literature ever written? Because this is the problem presented in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Sean Connery plays Allan Quartermain (of The Mines of King Solomon fame), a retired adventurer now living quietly in Africa, who is recruited to join an elite force of Victorian superheroes in order to battle the dark forces of an arch-enemy known as the Phantom. Among the league we find Jules Verne's intrepid inventor Captain Nemo, Oscar Wilde's effete debauchee Oscar Wilde, Robert Louis Stevenson's double-sided Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde, HG Wells' Invisible Man (Claude Rains was the Invisible Man, you know.), Mark Twain's boy hero Tom Sawyer (now an American Special Agent. Whatever.) and Bram Stoker's New Woman heroine, Mina Harker, now conveniently transformed into a vampire.

Well, it's a nice idea, anyway. Trouble is, it doesn't really work. I mean, what's the point of collecting together some of the greatest characters in literature and plonking them into a half-baked plot that goes nowhere and is over before it's really started? It's like getting Alice Cooper, Meat Loaf and Pavarotti up on stage together and asking them to sing a nursery rhyme. Like Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Johnny Depp and Gene Hackman acting in a school play.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: an inept band of 19th century X-Men

For starters, the Phantom has to be one of the lamest villains I've ever seen. If he'd been played by Gary Oldman he'd have had a bit more oomph, but as things stand he's about as threatening as Orphan Annie. What is he actually up to that's to evil? Stirring up trouble between Britain and Germany? Wait a couple of decades, love, and your work will be done for you.

As for the League, like a somewhat inept band of 19th century X-Men, they chug around the world on Captain Nemo's submarine, always a step behind - and to be a step behind the useless Phantom really does take some doing. Perhaps if they'd enlisted Sherlock Holmes they would have worked out what this crap excuse for a villain was up to a little sooner. And while we're on the subject of omissions, where were Dr Frankenstein, the Phantom of the Opera, Jack the Ripper and the Elephant Man? Lining up waiting for the (obviously cued up) sequel I suppose. They'll be lucky.

And the League we do get? Well, Sean Connery is, er, Sean Connery, Stuart Townsend turns in a suitably languid, elegantly cynical performance as Dorian Gray (although what made Peter Jackson think he'd make a good Aragorn is beyond me) and Jekyll/Hyde is quite good as well (although the special effects team appear to be confusing Mr Hyde with the Incredible Hulk, but we'll let that pass). In fact, come to think of it, none of the League really suck, but the film would have been much more fun if the characters had been played by more recognisable actors. Winona Ryder's not doing much these days is she? How about a reprise of her role as Mina Harker? She'd really get to kick some butt this time.

Quartermain, the Invisible Man (Tony Curran) and Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah)

And then we get to the back story problem. If you're familiar with the books in question (and I studied The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for my MA dissertation and wrote my degree paper on Dracula dontcha know) you'll be constantly annoyed by the details the scriptwriters have got wrong. Why, for example, is Mina exempt from Bram Stoker's vampire laws, swanning about in daylight, checking her reflection in a pocket mirror and seeming under no obligation to sleep in a coffin filled with earth? However, if you've not read the books or seen the films (so if you've been living on the moon or something), fear not, as there's plenty of pedestrian information awkwardly shoe-horned into the dialogue for you, of the 'oh, you must be good-Dr-Jekyll-who-drinks-a-potion-and-turns-into-evil-Mr-Hyde then?' 'Yup, that'll be me' variety.

That said, this isn't the worst movie I've seen by a long shot. After all, just cuz a film is crap doesn't mean you don't enjoy it. The CGI is occasionally a bit pants but has its moments and the script doesn't exactly sparkle but is witty enough. It's certainly not a boring film - at times it's even quite exciting - and it does contain some nice moments. There's something rather touching about the way the utterly immoral and evil Mr Hyde manages to come good and save the day. But surely with the assets the film has - a good idea, a truly 'extraordinary' cast of characters, decent actors and a sizeable budget - they could have done so much better.

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