Shiny Shelf

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

By Mark Clapham on 11 November 2003

‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’ isn’t a blockbuster, it’s an adventure movie. It may seem like a fine distinction to make, but ‘League’ fundamentally isn’t about spreading as much eye-gouging spectacle and star gloss on the screen as possible. Instead, it tells a pulp action story with some heroes, a few villains and a lot of fights.

The year is 1899, and the world is under threat from a villian possessing advanced technology. The British Empire calls on it’s greatest hero, Allan Quatermain (Sean Connery) to form a league of heroes to defend it. These heroes are Dorian Gray, Mina Harker, Captain Nemo, Dr Jekyll, and an invisible man who is one step removed from the HG Wells version. Oh, and American agent Tom Sawyer ends up along for the ride.

While the Alan Moore/Kevin O’Neill comic on which the movie is (loosely) based was a complex literary game, taking characters and concepts from victorian fiction and mixing them together in a bewildering collage of references and jokes, the film instead takes the concept and uses it as a vehicle to mix cinematic genres instead. It’s a less intellectual or witty exercise, but one which inspires an instinctive, almost unwilling fondness.

Some movies are made to be seen on the biggest screen possible, others are more suited to an intimate arthouse – ‘League’ seems custom designed to be shown on television on bank holiday afternoons. There’s a bit of technicolour epic here, a touch of Harryhausen there. It’s undemanding, exciting viewing. While the effects are nothing amazing, the production design is a delight, and like producer Don Murphy’s previous Moore film, ‘From Hell’, this is a must for anyone who gets over-excited by lovingly recreated effects shots of Victorian London. The main piece of production design, however, is Captain Nemo’s famous submarine, the Nautilus. The Nautilus is almost the star of the film, so strong is the design and so adoringly does the camera sweep over it. But only almost…

Stories of the conflict between director Stephen Norrington and Connery have been spread widely, and the film does indeed seem to have been re-edited in favour of its star’s vanity. The edits linger lovingly on Quatermain as he wrestles with the problems of his old age, questioning his own relevance. Remarkably, this domination of proceedings by Connery actually works to the film’s advantage, giving it a focus it would have lacked in a more balanced ensemble. It doesn’t harm matters that this is the first film since ‘The Rock’ to successfully trade on Connery’s capital as fading action icon. There’s a terrific resonance to seeing him looking back over his life as a legend with some regret, and the unpleasant interludes of ‘Entrapment’, ‘The Avengers’, ‘Medicine Man’ and so forth are quickly forgotten.

The rest of the cast are surprisingly good, even Peta Wilson of ‘La Femme Nikita’ TV series micro-fame. Even though this is Quatermain’s story, all the characters are sketched in well, and Richard Roxburgh and Stuart Townsend in particular seem to be having tremendous fun. The action is well staged, but is unfortunately let down in places by some unbalanced editing, which lingers too long in conversational scenes and is incoherently frenetic during the action.

While the comic cleverly danced around the details of the novels these characters came from (in particular explaining why most of them aren’t dead), the film of course does no such thing, instead taking terrible liberties with Dorian Gray and so forth. The script, by comics writer James Dale Robinson, is not half bad though, well-paced and with a nice balance between cheesy pulp dialogue and occasional knowing references. There are also some decent, sincere character moments, which are delivered well without undermining the action. Does it make sense? Not much, but just about enough. Certainly, there’s plenty of post-film fun to be had trying to work out which scenes are remnants of previous drafts of the script (the identity of the villain doesn’t quite fit well enough with certain elements of the story, for a start).

Like Norrington’s ‘Blade’, ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’ is a persistently enjoyable, exciting action movie which is well made in all the right places, and balances the serious and the silly with admirable skill. It won’t blow anyone’s mind, it doesn’t push the boundaries of visual excess forward, but it is a lot of fun.

And, one holiday afternoon some years from now, it will make a handful of bored channel surfers very happy for a little while.

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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

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