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They only come out at night... or in this case, the day
A region 2 DVD review of THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN by Slarek
 
"Wanting people to listen, you can't just tap them on the
shoulder any more. You have to hit them with a sledgehammer."
John Doe – Se7en

 

I consider myself well and truly hit.

Based on a comic novel by the revered Alan Moore, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has at its heart an interesting and seemingly literary concept. A team of crime-fighters is assembled by Her Majesty's Government to combat the threat of world war, each of them drawn from successful Victorian novels and with very specific skills. Given that most of the novels were set in a similar and for the most part reality-based Victorian England and that were primarily concerned with the fate of the central character, breaking down the barriers between individual narrative worlds represents less of a problem than it did in very specific generic works such as House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula or, God Forbid, Van Helsing, which involved a dilution or compete disregard of the spirit or rules of the stories that gave birth to the characters in the first place.

All of which sounds very high concept and clever, as none of the characters in the chosen novels were superheroes – they were adventurers, scientists and risk takers, all vulnerable and fallible and just a few bold steps away from you and me. Interesting, huh? Well yes, but there's a problem here, and it lies not in the original novels, but in the exaggerated nature of comic book characters and stories coupled with the evolution of the action film and the changing expectations of target audiences.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen cost close to $93 million, not insane by today's action movie standards but still bloody pricey for a low key adventure film targeted at an audience with a nostalgia for old-style Boy's Own adventures. So to reach a wider audience a few changes would be needed, and despite the literary heritage, the characters here are all drawn not from the novels in which they first appeared, but their cinematic offshoots, most of whom have undergone considerable alteration in subsequent decades. In the hands of Blade director Stephen Norrington, the film becomes a case study in generic inter-development and mutational cross-breeding; like many modern genre films, it pilfers from a whole slew of sources, and like so many attempts to bring characters from different stories into one tale, it betrays the original stories and the conventions and rules of the sub-genres they gave birth to.

Take, for instance, the team's vampire, Mina Harker. As the wife of the would-be hero of Bram Stoker's seminal vampire novel Dracula, her condition has an alternate-reality logic. Bitten by the Count but ultimately rescued, this is a vampire that could have been had events taken another turn. But the vampire here has little to do with Stoker, having the vicious physicality of post-Lost Boys creatures, an ability to hurl herself up walls at a speed that leaves Fright Night standing (and has more in common with the leaping demon in Peter Jackson's The Frighteners), and a Dr. Doolittle-like command of the local bat population. She is a post-modern vampire in almost every respect, but is able to wander around in bright sunlight without bursting in a flames or exploding, cheerfully (or ignorantly) ignoring a golden rule of vampire cinema established way back in 1922 by Nosferatu. And at a time when Buffy and Blade can prompt vampires to disintegrate on the spot with a spike thrust roughly into the chest area, Mina can take a blade full through the sternum and then come back to life with the feeble claim that it missed her heart, which presumably has been relocated in one of her legs, or something. Mind you, given that we are used to vampires making an explosive exit when killed, her Michael Myers-like return from the undead can be seen coming a mile away, and in case you fail to spot the reference, she sits up behind her would-be dispatcher in a shot lifted almost wholesale from Halloween. She is also, with audience demographic in mind, the team's token female and hot enough for the lads to get all smiley over. That said, her impersonation of a disgruntled Sean Connery was funny enough for me almost to forgive much of the above. Almost.

What is wrong with this picture? A clue: the character
on the left is a vampire. Nice day for it.

This hybrid approach to character is evident in all of the League's members, most of whom are designed with an eye on recent action cinema and especially comic book adaptations, knowing that a sizeable portion of its potential audience will have gorged itself on recent generic excesses and be hungry for more. Thus Allan Quartermain has mutated from a simple adventurer to Allan the Everything Slayer, a man with an almost bionic shooting ability and Bruce Lee-like fighting skills, which are created almost entirely by Norrington's quicker-than-the-eye editing. Dorian Gray has been transformed from the immoral cad protected from the ravages of age to a T-1000 from Terminator 2, an indestructible, self-repairing warrior who survives enough assaults to make you wonder just what state the portrait that is suffering his ravages must be in. The murderous megalomaniac Captain Nemo has developed a streak of nobility and, huge beard aside, has become The Prince of Persia, a computer game character with superhuman sword and fighting abilities, a whir of fists, feet and blades that plays like a cross between Jet Li and the Warner Brothers cartoon Tasmanian Devil. Mr. Hyde is no longer just a bestial expression of the darker side of humanity, but The Incredible Hulk, though later in the film abandons his uncontrolled madness and becomes more emotionally stable than even Dr. Jeckyll, a team player able to use his increased size and huge strength to give the enemy what for, only meeting any sort of resistance from an even more oversized version of himself in a rework of the cyborg punch-up from Robocop 2. The Invisible Man is very consciously a couple of generations on from the original, a thief who stole the formula and, as the mouthy cockney wide boy, an increasingly familiar figure in Hollywood films who is used here to (unsuccessfully) misdirect the audience from the real False Hero.

And then, of course, there is Tom Sawyer, the cheery, energetic and good-looking young American who shoots with two pistols in the now familiar John Woo fashion (see also Brendan Fraser in The Mummy and countless others of late) and provides old Quartermain with a surrogate son to replace the one he lost and to whom he can pass on his unique skills with a rifle. The scene in which he finally, inevitably, masters the skill and inherits the dying Quartermain's mantel clunkily echoes the handing over of power following the war of independence, as the fading symbol of the old British Empire (Quartermain's professed hatred for the Empire seems calculated to engage an American audience who still celebrate the departure of 'the hated Brits') defers to the representative of a new, young (and good looking) country. Like all of the characters here, they act and talk almost exclusively in cliché.

This mutation extends beyond the characterisation and into the hardware. That the group have an automobile in these times of horse-drawn carriages seems driven more by the need for a pacy car chase than any internal logic, but this vehicle was clearly constructed by the same company that created the Batmobile, enabling it to smash through stone and repel bullets with no visible signs of damage. Nemo's Nautilus, meanwhile, is a cross between a luxury liner and a Polaris submarine, complete with guided missiles and a kick-ass propulsion system. A virtual leviathan when it first emerges from the water, it towers over the astonished group and glides majestically through the ocean as the camera swoops across it in a manner that cannot help but recall similar, "look at this big ship!" shots from Titanic, yet later is small enough to navigate the canals of Venice until it gets stuck under a low bridge.

In modern action cinema, size is everything – it has to be bigger, louder, more outrageous than what went before. Thus when we arrive at the villain's secret lair, it's the size of a large town and encompasses a factory for constructing evil automatons that would rival the production line in I, Robot. It's old and decaying, so presumably had a previous use, but given it's size I can only presume it was where they stored the pyramids until they were ready to be transported to Egypt. It takes the Big Set Finale concept of Bond movies and runs with it like lunatic with a live grenade, which it then throws at the audience. Inevitably there is extensive use of CGI, which allows the characters to repeatedly achieve the completely impossible and us to disconnect with them on an emotional level. The effects almost always look fake, but really fall on their arse when we go underwater, the snaking camera shots that reveal the location of the bombs that may destroy Venice looking uncannily like an intro to the latest Tomb Raider game. A second set of bombs located on the submarine are also revealed through camera trickery, this time a combination of speed-up effects from Fight Club and Sexy Beast.

Let me be clear, I don't believe The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a bad modern action film, not by any means. I believe it is a typical one, and that the problem lies not so much with the film but the cannibalistic nature of the genre itself, which seems to be stuck in cycle of explosive one-upmanship, fuelled by an audience that doesn't seem to care that it is being re-fed the same material over and over again in a slightly different coloured box. The idea of uniting a number of characters from key Victorian novels into a single story is a good one, an original one, but everything else in the film is frustratingly second-hand, old ideas and imagery recycled and regurgitated with technical polish, but no heart.

sound and vision

One thing you can usually be certain of with high budget Hollywood action releases is that they will look and sound terrific, and this disk does not disappoint. This is especially important given how much of the film takes place at night or darkly designed and lit interiors. The picture is crisp and the shadow detail fine, the reproduction of the sometimes muted colour scheme bang on. Framed at 2.35:1 and anamorphically enhanced, this is a very strong transfer.

Two soundtracks are on offer here – 5.1 and DTS – though there is little to choose between them. Both a sprightly, with very good use of surround and LFE channels, reproducing a very full and typically explosive mix most effectively. If action movies are you bag, baby, then you won't be disappointed with this.

extra features

There are two versions of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen available for purchase, and if you are a fan and like your extras then the two disk set is definitely the one to go for. If all you want is the film, however, this single disk version will do you fine, especially as you can pick it up for under a tenner at the moment.

There are only two extras on this disk (which is also disk 1 on the two disk set), and both are commentary tracks. As with Blade, director Stephen Norrington seems uninterested or unwilling to participate, so on commentary track 1 we have actors Jason Flemyng (Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde), Tony Curran (The Invisible Man) and Shane West (Tom Saywer), plus producers Don Murphy and Trevor Albert. The is a very good track with Murphy and Albert providing the technical details and the actors the anecdotes, many of which are very entertaining, none more so than Tony Curran's tale of his disagreement on the golf course with Sean Connery. The information provided by the producers is detailed and almost always interesting, though Murphy sometimes gets sneery about criticism of the film's use of characters and cheerfully reveals that the incorporation of Tom Sawyer into the story (he was not in the comic) was due to pressure from the studio to have a young American in the cast for demographic purposes. It's down to Shane West, though, to tell us that many of the deviations from Moore's original comic novel were made simply to get more bums on seats. The track appears to have been made up from three separate recordings, one each of the producers and a third of the the actors as a group. There only a few dead spots, but a couple are quite long.

Commentary track 2 features costume designer Jacqueline West, visual effects supervisor John Sullivan, make-up effects supervisor Steve Johnson and miniatures creator Matthew Gratzner. This is a far drier commentary that the first, inevitable given its almost exclusively technical nature – much of it is of interest, though West's detailed descriptions of the costumes and their constituent parts becomes increasingly wearing.

summary

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen got a bit of a critical pasting on its release and I'm actually surprised by this, not because I think it's a particularly good film, but because it's no worse than a good many of the other, equally formulaic and derivative comic book action films out there. Critical praise has been heaped on Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy, for instance, a film that's every bit as overblown and by-the-numbers. Both films are typical of modern action cinema in that they are the filmic equivalent of a do-it-yourself jigsaw, one constructed from parts lifted from any number of other sources that when pieced together make up a complete but ultimately very familiar picture. You can take the analogy further if you remember that most modern day jigsaws are not hand crafted from wood as they once were, but built from cardboard and banged out by a machine.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

USA 2003
106 mins
director
Stephen Norrington
starring
Sean Connery
Naseeruddin Shah
Peta Wilson
Tony Curran
Rachel Blake
Stuart Townsend
Shane West
Jason Flemyng

DVD details
region 2
video
2.35:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby surround 5.1
DTS surround 5.1
languages
English
subtitles
English
English for commentaries
extras
Actor and producer commentary
Crew commentary
distributor
20th Century Fox
review posted
5 November 2004

See all of Slarek's reviews