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

Nanobots aren’t just for Christmas.

No Time to Die (2021) (SPOILERS) You know a Bond movie is in trouble when it resorts to wholesale appropriation of lines and even the theme song from another in order to “boost” its emotional heft. That No Time to Die – which previewed its own title song a year and a half before its release to resoundingly underwhelmed response, Grammys aside – goes there is a damning indictment of its ability to eke out such audience investment in Daniel Craig’s final outing as James (less so as 007). As with Spectre , the first half of No Time to Die is, on the whole, more than decent Bond fare, before it once again gets bogged down in the quest for substance and depth from a character who, regardless of how dapper his gear is, resolutely resists such outfitting.

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

Big things have small beginnings.

Prometheus (2012) Post- Gladiator , Ridley Scott opted for an “All work and no pondering” approach to film making. The result has been the completion of as many movies since the turn of the Millennium as he directed in the previous twenty years. Now well into his seventies, he has experienced the most sustained period of success of his career.  For me, it’s also been easily the least-interesting period. All of them entirely competently made, but all displaying the machine-tooled approach that was previously more associated with his brother.

Ladies and gentlemen, this could be a cultural misunderstanding.

Mars Attacks! (1996) (SPOILERS) Ak. Akk-akk! Tim Burton’s gleefully ghoulish sci-fi was his first real taste of failure. Sure, there was Ed Wood , but that was cheap, critics loved it, and it won Oscars. Mars Attacks! was BIG, though, expected to do boffo business, and like more than a few other idiosyncratic spectaculars of the 1990s ( Last Action Hero , Hudson Hawk ) it bombed BIG. The effect on Burton was noticeable. He retreated into bankable propositions (the creative and critical nadir perhaps being Planet of the Apes , although I’d rate it much higher than the likes of Alice in Wonderland and Dumbo ) and put the brakes on his undisciplined goth energy. Something was lost. Mars Attacks! is far from entirely successful, but it finds the director let loose with his own playset and sensibility intact, apparently given the licence to do what he will.

So the devil's child will rise from the world of politics.

The Omen (1976) (SPOILERS) The coming of the Antichrist is an evergreen; his incarnation, or the reveal thereof, is always just round the corner, and he can always be definitively identified in any given age through a spot of judiciously subjective interpretation of The Book of Revelation , or Nostradamus. Probably nothing did more for the subject in the current era, in terms of making it part of popular culture, than The Omen . That’s irrespective of the movie’s quality, of course. Which, it has to be admitted, is not on the same level as earlier demonic forebears Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist .

I’m giving you a choice. Either put on these glasses or start eating that trash can.

They Live * (1988) (SPOILERS) Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of They Live – I was a big fan of most things Carpenter at the time of its release – but the manner in which its reputation as a prophecy of (or insight into) “the way things are” has grown is a touch out of proportion with the picture’s relatively modest merits. Indeed, its feting rests almost entirely on the admittedly bravura sequence in which WWF-star-turned-movie-actor Roddy Piper, under the influence of a pair of sunglasses, first witnesses the pervasive influence of aliens among us who are sucking mankind dry. That, and the ludicrously genius sequence in which Roddy, full of transformative fervour, attempts to convince Keith David to don said sunglasses, for his own good. They Live should definitely be viewed by all, for their own good, but it’s only fair to point out that it doesn’t have the consistency of John Carpenter at his very, very best. Nada : I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick a

Are you, by any chance, in a trance now, Mr Morrison?

The Doors (1991) (SPOILERS) Oliver Stone’s mammoth, mythologising paean to Jim Morrison is as much about seeing himself in the self-styled, self-destructive rebel figurehead, and I suspect it’s this lack of distance that rather quickly leads to The Doors becoming a turgid bore. It’s strange – people are , you know, films equally so – but I’d hitherto considered the epic opus patchy but worthwhile, a take that disintegrated on this viewing. The picture’s populated with all the stars it could possibly wish for, tremendous visuals (courtesy of DP Robert Richardson) and its director operating at the height of his powers, but his vision, or the incoherence thereof, is the movie’s undoing. The Doors is an indulgent, sprawling mess, with no internal glue to hold it together dramatically. “Jim gets fat and dies” isn’t really a riveting narrative through line.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

I think I’m Pablo Picasso!

Venom: Let There Be Carnage (2021) (SPOILERS) I get the impression that, whatever it is stalwart Venom fans want from a Venom movie, this iteration isn’t it. The highlight here for me is absolutely the wacky, love-hate, buddy-movie antics of Tom Hardy and his symbiote alter. That was the best part of the original, before it locked into plot “progression” and teetered towards a climax where one CGI monster with gnarly teeth had at another CGI monster with gnarly teeth. And so it is for Venom: Let There Be Carnage . But cutting quicker to the chase.

Isn’t sugar better than vinegar?

Femme Fatale (2002) (SPOILERS) Some have attempted to rescue Femme Fatale from the dumpster of critical rejection and audience indifference with the claim that it’s De Palma’s last great movie. It isn’t that by a long shot, but it might rank as the last truly unfettered display of his obsessions and sensibilities, complete with a ludicrous twist – so ludicrous, it’s either a stroke of genius or mile-long pile up.