Skip to main content

Come on Jekyll, get in.

The League of Extraordinary Gentleman
(2003)

The movie that induced Sean Connery to hang up his theatrical tights, such was the misery of making the damn thing. Sure, he’s done a bit of voice work since, as a nod to his Scottishness, but this will remain his final feature. We’ll never get to see that repairing with Michael Caine (just was we missed out on a Redford/Newman trio). Hackman hung up his saddle at about the same time (and at about the same age). It’s not that you begrudge actors in their 70s retiring, not at all. But you wish that, if it were a conscious decision, they’d choose something that stands a more fitting epitaph. There were three years been Connery’s previous film and League. That one, Finding Forrester, would at least have seen him bow out on a respectable note. Still, at least he’s enjoying all that golf.


The source of much of the Scot’s ire on League was director Stephen Norrington. Indeed, whole articles have been written about the disenchanted. Three decades plus younger than his star, the fall-out from the film also clearly had a profound effect on Norrington. He hasn’t directed a feature in the subsequent decade (this isn’t the sort of film to get a proud 10th anniversary release…), although his name has been sporadically attached to in-development projects. Norrington had one major credit to his name when he embarked on League (his fourth feature); Blade, a Marvel property that had the edge on the rebirth of the superhero movie by a good couple of years. At very least, his choice to adapt an Alan Moore comic book showed he had an eye for material. But so did the Hughes brothers, and their adaptation of Moore’s From Hell had also stumbled. Not as profoundly as League would, but sufficiently that there seemed little of Moore’s distinctive sensibility left. At least From Hell possessed a full-blooded, tangible version of Victoriana courtesy of cinematographer Peter Deming. Unfortunately Norrington’s depiction of the period would be an ugly, clumsy, CGI-by-way-of-steampunk monstrosity.


He may have an excuse, in that League was rushed for a summer 2003 release, requiring effects to be farmed out to another house. And disaster struck the Prague sets, puttiing the production further behind schedule. But that doesn’t explain the graceless designs of the Nautilus and Nemo’s supercar, both of which give rise to blocky, thundering, action sequences that illustrate the director’s lack of finesse. The sinking of Venice set piece in particular is quite ghastly to behold. Norrington was reportedly neither comfortable with the Fox’s micromanagement (they’re weren’t known as the most director-friendly studio back then, and still aren’t), nor the sheer scale of the production. If Norrington has remained quiet about the combustive atmosphere, Connery held forth on several occasions (“On the first day, I realise he was insane” he said of his director).


Neither Moore (who will no longer countenance even a glance at film versions of his work) nor artist Kevin O’Neill were impressed by the changes made to the comic book. Moore’s basic idea, to collect together famous fictional characters of the period as a kind of Victorian proto-Avengers, has obvious big screen potential, but the artlessness of the result compares to The Avengers, another British property Connery seemingly hexed five years.


James Dale Robinson, a prolific comic book writer, was tasked with the adaptation (curiously he also appears to have steered clear of screen work since), and promptly threw out much of the Moore’s storyline. At one point, following the curiously blinkered thinking of Fox execs (who were clearly blind to the popularity of the thoroughly British Bond franchise in the USA), a draft transposed most of the action to America. In the end, the sop to home-grown audiences who clearly “needed” an identification figure (and a young one to boot), Tom Sawyer (Shane West), wasn’t so much massaged as crudely overlaid on the action. He became Allan Quartermain’s (Connery’s) young apprentice. Sawyer is a blight on any nuance the movie might have offered, underlining every moronic action beat one would expect of a big dumb blockbuster. He even exclaims “Care for a spin?” at one point has he takes command of the Batmobile, I mean Nemo’s car. Sawyer is indicative of the obnoxious approach taken throughout.


In the comic, the League was led by Mina Harker (Peta Wilson). Who wasn’t a vampire. Here, Quartermain is very much calling the shots. There’s Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah), Rodney Skinner (Tony Curran as “an” invisible man; rights issues presented using the original Wells character), Dr Jekyll (Jason Flemyng) and Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend). Ironically, Gray isn’t utilised in the comics. Ironically, as he’s probably the best-depicted character in this mess and Townsend certainly gives the most interesting performance. Curran and Flemyng are fine as a cheeky chappy geezer invisible man (never in a million years would the activities of the comic book invisible man have been replicated by the movie) and a nervous/savage, man/monster respectively. Some reports have it that Flemyng took the role after a number of actors turned the part down on account of the prosthetics involved. Any self-respecting actor who had seen the designs would said no to Hyde on account of the aesthetics; he’s a wretched combination of make-up and CGI, an unintentionally comic version of The Incredible Hulk. All the characters have a surfeit of requisite references to their troubled histories (“Your own past is far from laudable” blah blah), often with groan worthy predictability. Where they do escape with a modicum of dignity intact it’s because the actors are able to lessen the blows of dreadful dialogue.


One of Moore's villains was Fu Manchu. Whether Fox replaced him with the Fantom because (as reported) the rights were unavailable/too costly or they were sensitive to the possible racist implications of reviving him is unknown. Without doubt, however, is that Richard Roxburgh is absolutely dreadful as M. I’m unconvinced it was the most dazzling stroke of invention for Moore to fall back on this particular criminal mastermind anyway (in this respect, the film follows the source material). He’s a lazy, one-note (one-initial) character based on a much-over used iconic villain and played by a charmless ham actor (who inflicted more charmless ham on the big screen as another iconic villain, Dracula, in another lousy franchise non-starter, Van Helsing, the following year;). It’s been suggested that the size of Connery’s salary prevented bigger names from being harnessed for the rest of the League (Monica Bellucci was up for Mina, but schedules clashed), but that isn’t even on the radar of reasons for this movie’s failure.


The “super team” structure inevitably results in time spent assembling the members. That’s part of the fun, or at least it should be. But everything about Norrington’s film feels cack-handed form the first. And when the League is established an inordinate amount of time is spent in transit on the Nautilus (Avengers did something similar with a middle act on the helicarrier, but at least that had some intrigue).


Never a studio to let rights lapse (well, Daredevil excepted), as witnessed by their dogged determination to milk every last dollar out of X-Men as returns slowly diminish and their persistence in rebooting Fantastic Four, Fox has announced plans to refurnish League but this time in television form. Showtime’s production of Penny Dreadful, a Victorian monster series from John Logan and Sam Mendes, is probably not coincidental to this decision. Penny Dreadful features the likes of Dorian Gray, Van Helsing and Victor Frankenstein. It also has a promising cast, and Josh Hartnett. The TV League probably couldn’t be any worse than the film, but it’s already playing catch-up (shades of Warner Bros/DC’s clueless attempts to rise to the challenge of Disney/Marvel). Fox have, to be fair, produced some very good fantasy television (although their track record in killing off difficult progeny before they have a chance to blossom is also marked), but there’s little doubt that Alan Moore won’t be happy however it turns out.


*1/2


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

He’s probably paranoid, high-strung, doesn’t like daylight. You know, has a lot of crumbs in his beard, if he has a beard.

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) (SPOILERS) I’d like to report I had a blast with Godzilla vs. Kong . It’s lighter on its oversized, city-stomping feet than its slog of a MonsterVerse predecessor, Godzilla: King of the Monsters , and there are flashes of visual inspiration along with several engaging core ideas (which, to be fair, the series had already laid the seeds for). But this sequel still stumbles in its chief task: assembling an engaging, lively story that successfully integrates both tiny humans and towering titans.

Roswell was a smokescreen, we've had a half a dozen better salvage operations.

The X-Files 1.24: The Erlenmeyer Flask The Erlenmeyer Flask makes for a fast-paced, tense and eventful ride, but does it make any sense? That less than mattered at the time, but revisiting the mythology arc (for probably the fourth or fifth time) reveals increasingly tenuous internal coherence as the various conspiracy elements begin to pile up and the situations become ever-more convoluted. This will become the Chris Carter’s signature: don’t examine the details too closely, go with the flow. Trust Chris implicitly.

It's Dark Age, by Jupiter!

The Dig (2021) (SPOILERS) An account of the greatest archaeological find Britain would know until Professor Horner opened the barrow at Devil’s End. And should you scoff at such “ fiction ”, that’s nothing on this adaptation of John Preston’s 2007 novel concerning the Sutton Hoo excavations of the late 1930s. The Dig , as is the onus of any compelling fictional account, takes liberties with the source material, but the erring from the straight and narrow in this case is less an issue than the shift in focus from characters and elements successfully established during the first hour.

UFO IN MOSSINGHAM?

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (2020) (SPOILERS) One might reasonably suggest the recourse of the ailing or desperate franchise is to resort, seemingly out of nowhere, to space aliens. Even Police Academy didn’t go that far (to Moscow, yes, but not to space). Perhaps animators think kids have no skills of discernment and will swallow any old sugar-coated crap. Perhaps they don’t, and they will. Ice Age had been enjoying absurd success until Collision Course sent Scrat spinning into the cosmos and grosses tumbled. Shaun the Sheep has been around for a quarter of a century, but this is only his second movie outing and already he’s pulling an E.T. on us. Of course, this may all be part of the grand scheme, and Nick Park is simply doing his bit to familiarise the tots in time for Project Blue Beam.

You stink, my friend.

Mulan (2020) (SPOILERS) Let that be a lesson to Disney. It’s a fool’s errand to try and beat the Chinese at their own game, no matter how painstakingly respectful – or rather, pandering – you are. Indeed, Mulan ’s abysmal $40m box office take in the country – where it did get a proper release, so no plandemic excuses can be cited – feels like a direct rebuke; don’t try and tell us how to suck eggs. There’s an additional explanation too, of course. That Mulan sucks.

By heaven, I’d thrash the life out of you… if I didn’t have to read the Nine O’Clock News.

The Green Man (1956) (SPOILERS) The Green movie from Launder and Gilliat starring Alastair Sim that isn’t Green for Danger. Which is to say, The Green Man can’t quite scale the heady heights of that decade-earlier murder mystery triumph, but neither is it any slouch. Sim is the antagonist this time – albeit a very affable, Sim-ish one – and his sometime protégée, a young George Cole, the hero. If the plot is entirely absurd, Robert Day’s movie wastes no time probing such insufficiencies, ensuring it is very funny, lively and beautifully performed.

Suspicions of destiny. We all have them. A deep, wordless knowledge that our time has come.

Damien: Omen II (1978) (SPOILERS) There’s an undercurrent of unfulfilled potential with the Omen series, an opportunity to explore the machinations of the Antichrist and his minions largely ignored in favour of Final Destination deaths every twenty minutes or so. Of the exploration there is, however, the better part is found in Damien: Omen II , where we’re privy to the parallel efforts of a twelve or thirteen-year-old Damien at military school and those of Thorn Industries. The natural home of the diabolical is, after all, big business. Consequently, while this sequel is much less slick than the original, it is also more engaging dramatically.

Well, I’ll be damned. It’s the gentleman guppy.

Waterworld (1995) (SPOILERS) The production and budgetary woes of “ Kevin’s Gate ” will forever overshadow the movie’s content (and while it may have been the most expensive movie ever to that point – adjusted for inflation, it seems only Cleopatra came close – it has since turned a profit). However, should you somehow manage to avoid the distraction of those legendary problems, the real qualitative concerns are sure to come sailing over the cognitive horizon eventually; Waterworld is just so damned derivative. It’s a seafaring Mad Max. Peter Rader, who first came up with the idea in 1986, admitted as much. David Twohy, who later came aboard, also cited Mad Max 2 ; that kind of rip-off aspect – Jaws birthing Piranha – makes it unsurprising Waterworld was once under consideration by Roger Corman (he couldn’t cost it cheaply enough). Ultimately, there’s never a sufficient sense the movie has managed to become its own thing. Which is a bummer, because it’s frequently quite good fun.

A subterranean Loch Ness Monster?

Doctor Who The Silurians No, I’m not going to refer to The Silurians as Doctor Who and the Silurians . I’m going to refer to it as Doctor Who and the Eocenes . The Silurians plays a blinder. Because both this and Inferno know the secret of an extended – some might say overlong – story is to keep the plot moving, they barely drag at all and are consequently much fleeter of foot than many a four parter. Unlike Malcolm Hulke’s sequel The Sea Devils , The Silurians has more than enough plot and deals it out judiciously (the plague, when it comes, kicks the story up a gear at the precarious burn-out stage of a typical four-plus parter). What’s most notable, though, is how engaging those first four episodes are, building the story slowly but absorbingly and with persuasive confidence.

Farewell, dear shithead, farewell.

Highlander II: The Quickening (1991) (SPOILERS) I saw Highlander II: The Quickening at the cinema. Yes, I actually paid money to see one of the worst mainstream sequels ever on the big screen. I didn’t bother investigating the Director’s Cut until now, since the movie struck me as entirely unsalvageable. I was sufficiently disenchanted with all things Highlander that I skipped the TV series and slipshod sequels, eventually catching Christopher Lambert’s last appearance as Connor MacLeod in Highlander: End Game by accident rather than design. But Highlander II ’s on YouTube , and the quality is decent, so maybe the Director’s Cut improve matters and is worth a reappraisal? Not really. It’s still a fundamentally, mystifyingly botched retcon enabling the further adventures of MacLeod, just not quite as transparently shredded in the editing room.