In terms of this summer's large-scale, special effects-laden action extravaganzas, "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" is lower-key and less flashy. None of its big moments come close to approaching the sheer adrenaline rush of, say, the highway sequence in "The Matrix Reloaded
" or the crane chase through the Hollywood street in "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
" or the fight between Wolverine and Lady Deathstrike in "X2
." And yet, the film is decidedly more involving than all of the above, holds more intriguingly original conceits, andhere's a refreshing change of pacekeeps its running time well below the two-hour mark.
Based on the comic book by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill, "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" brings together a wide array of figures from classic literature to join forces and do battle against a megalomaniac out to start a World War between England and Germany. The time is 1899, and a masked villain known as the Phantom has begun to destroy both countries in an attempt to create a strife between them, and, thus, getting the chance to sell his new high-tech weaponry. To prevent this from happening, British secret agent "M" (Richard Roxburgh) enlists the aid of aging adventurer Allan Quartermain (Sean Connery), sea-farer Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah), the Invisible Man (Tony Curran), and Dracula's ex-lover and newly vampiric Mina Harker (Peta Wilson). Given free reign to find anyone else who may want to join their new "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," Quartermain later finds help in the form of the immortal Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Jason Flemyng), and the now-adult Tom Sawyer (Shane West). As their quest leads them to Venice, across the open seas in a gigantic submarine known as the Nautilus, and finally to the snowy mountains of Mongolia, it becomes increasingly apparent that one of their own may secretly be in cahoots with the Phantom.
Directed with casual aplomb by Stephen Norrington (1998's "Blade"), "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" captures your attention from the first frame, holds it for most of the running time, and does it without trying too hard. As far as this year's comic book adaptations go, the movie chimes in second only to the adult-minded and challenging "Hulk
." That said movie is superior to "Daredevil
," and "Bulletproof Monk
," as well as non-comic book features like "The Matrix Reloaded
," "Pirates of the Caribbean
," and "2 Fast 2 Furious
," and yet is still nothing more than merely good, only goes to prove that there is much room for improvement in today's summer blockbusters.
First, the good. The premise itself, in which famous characters from literature cross paths and work together for the greater good, is exciting and ingenious. The Invisible Man, for example, is able to spy on the bad guys without ever being seen, while Dr. Jekyll occasionally transforms into his giant, Hulkish alter-ego Mr. Hyde, and the bloodthirsty Mina Harker can turn into a hundred bats at once and attack at will. The camaraderie between the lead characters is easy-going and believable, with a subtly forming father-son relationship between Allan Quartmain (who lost his own son years ago) and Tom Sawyer quietly effective without growing maudlin. The production design (credited to Carol Spier) of a turn-of-the-century world that, nonetheless, has futuristic elements around the edges, is sometimes awe-inspiring and always sumptuous. The special effects are also some of the best of the year, with Mr. Hyde surprisingly more lifelike in his creation and movements than the Hulk himself. The Nautilus, an enormous, curvy, fast-moving submarine, is an equally superb visual treat.
Although the picture moves with efficiency and the pacing rarely flags (makers of the overlong, overblown "Pirates of the Caribbean
," take note), the editing does not hold such close scrutiny. In one scene, the characters can be in England, and in the next they are in Venice without any reasoning. No matter how fast the Nautilus can move, it certainly isn't superpowered to achieve such a feat as this. The movie's lacking sense of space and time is often confused because of it. Additionally, while the members of the "League" all get their chance to be in the spotlight, their backstories are woefully underdeveloped, and disappointingly little is taken advantage of from their respective novels.
At 72, Sean Connery (1999's "Entrapment
") appears to be in amazingly fine shape and still passes muster as an action hero. With his distinctive voice, speech, and suave mannerisms, Connery brings nobility and exuberance to every role he plays, and Allan Quartermain is no exception. As Tom Sawyer (the one original addition to the film that wasn't in the comic), Shane West (2002's "A Walk to Remember
") does quite well in the part of Quartermain's young apprentice. And Peta Wilson (TV's "La Femme Nikita") has got Mina Harker down pat, with equal parts sensuality, sweetness, and vicious bite.
As problematic as certain elements are (the anticlimactic ending, too, could have used some more thought), "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" is undeniable entertainment, far more compact and frequently satisfying than some of this summer's biggerand lesseraction pictures. After seeing the promise that director Stephen Norrington has shown with what is set up as a new potential franchise, the idea of a "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen 2" doesn't sound like a bad idea at all. There are many more high-flying adventures that Allan Quartermain, The Invisible Man, Captain Nemo, and the rest of them could potentially go on, and there's also much that could be solidified and perfected on a second voyage.