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

I added sixty on, and now you’re a genius.

The Avengers 4.3: The Master Minds
The Master Minds hitches its wagon to the not uncommon Avengers trope of dark deeds done under the veil of night. We previously encountered it in The Town of No Return, but Robert Banks Stewart (best known for Bergerac, but best known genre-wise for his two Tom Baker Doctor Who stories; likewise, he also penned only two teleplays for The Avengers) makes this episode more distinctive, with its mind control and spycraft, while Peter Graham Scott, in his third contribution to the show on the trot, pulls out all the stops, particularly with a highly creative climactic fight sequence that avoids the usual issue of overly-evident stunt doubles.

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Where is the voice that said altered carbon would free us from the cells of our flesh?

Altered Carbon Season One
(SPOILERS) Well, it looks good, even if the visuals are absurdly indebted to Blade Runner. Ultimately, though, Altered Carbon is a disappointment. The adaption of Richard Morgan’s novel comes armed with a string of well-packaged concepts and futuristic vernacular (sleeves, stacks, cross-sleeves, slagged stacks, Neo-Cs), but there’s a void at its core. It singularly fails use the dependable detective story framework to explore the philosophical ramifications of its universe – except in lip service – a future where death is impermanent, and even botches the essential goal of creating interesting lead characters (the peripheral ones, however, are at least more fortunate).

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Like an antelope in the headlights.

Black Panther (2018)
(SPOILERS) Like last year’s Wonder Woman, the hype for what it represents has quickly become conflated with Black Panther’s perceived quality. Can 92% and 97% of critics respectively really not be wrong, per Rotten Tomatoes, or are they – Armond White aside – afraid that finding fault in either will make open them to charges of being politically regressive, insufficiently woke or all-round, ever-so-slightly objectionable? As with Wonder Woman, Black Panther’s very existence means something special, but little about the movie itself actually is. Not the acting, not the directing, and definitely not the over-emphatic, laboured screenplay. As such, the picture is a passable two-plus hours’ entertainment, but under-finessed enough that one could easily mistake it for an early entry in the Marvel cycle, rather than arriving when they’re hard-pressed to put a serious foot wrong.

Yeah, keep walking, you lanky prick!

Mute (2018)
(SPOILERS) Duncan Jones was never entirely convincing when talking up his reasons for Mute’s futuristic setting, and now it’s easy to see why. What’s more difficult to discern is his passion for the project in the first place. If the picture’s first hour is torpid in pace and singularly fails to muster interest, the second is more engaging, but that’s more down to the unappetising activities of Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux’s supporting surgeons than the quest undertaken by Alex Skarsgård’s lead. Which isn’t such a compliment, really.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

You think I contaminated myself, you think I did that?

Silkwood (1983)
Mike Nichol’s film about union activist Karen Silkwood, who died under suspicious circumstances in a car accident in 1974, remains a powerful piece of work; even more so in the wake of Fukushima. If we transpose the microcosm of employees of a nuclear plant, who would rather look the other way in favour of a pay cheque, to the macrocosm of a world dependent on an energy source that could spell our destruction (just don’t think about it and, if you do, be reassured by the pronouncements of “experts” on how safe it all is; and if that doesn’t persuade you be under no illusion that we need this power now, future generations be damned!) it is just as relevant.

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…