Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Angry Films, International Production Company, 3D Productions, 20th Century-Fox, 2003)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” last night was yet another fantasy inspired by our recent attendance at the ConDor science-fiction convention: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a 2003 20th Century-Fox production largely based on the comic book — oops, “graphic novel” (the term of art for a comic book as long as a standard novel) — scripted by Alan Moore and drawn by Kevin O’Neill. The comics began in 1999 and continued through three main volumes and two side projects, ending in 2016 when Moore announced his retirement from writing or even reading comic books; apparently Volume III of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is going to be his last work. Moore, whose attitude towards the film industry makes J. D. Salinger’s seem like a model of sweetness and light by comparison, agreed to take credit for the film version of The League even though the script by James Dale Robinson departed radically from Moore’s and O’Neill’s vision, ending in a secret armaments factory in Tibet (oh, so that’s where it was! When I was watching the movie I thought it was in Antarctica!) where the super-villain is producing a series of ultra-high-tech weapons with which he intends to set the superpowers of the day — the film is set in 1899 — against each other in a world war that will profit him immensely because both sides will want to buy his arms. The League — the movie — begins with a spectacular scene of a tank (designed to look like the actual first tanks, which Britain pioneered as a war weapon in the real-life World War I in 1915) literally crashing through the Bank of England and running over a bobby who futilely orders it to stop in the name of the law.

Naturally British authorities blame the attack on their rising enemy, Germany — until a similar tank attack occurs in Berlin and the Brits realize that a secret enemy led by someone called “The Fantom” and wearing a Phantom of the Opera-style mask is attacking both countries and trying to spark a war between them. The film then cuts to Africa, where the adventurer Allan Quatermain (Sean Connery, who gets a producer credit as well as starring in it and being, quite frankly, the only cast member I’d previously heard of) — whose name is misspelled “Quartermain” throughout the movie (“Quatermain,” without the first “r,” is the name the character’s creator, H. Rider Haggard, used) is living in semi-retirement until an emissary from the British secret service recruits him to return home and be part of a group of “extraordinary gentlemen” (plus one extraordinary lady, more on her later) who will go after the Fantom and stop him from sabotaging an upcoming international conference in Venice that has been convened to try to forestall the impending world war. The head of the British secret service, “M” (an obvious in-joke because “M” is also the designation for the British secret service head in Ian Fleming’s James Bond stories, whose original films made Sean Connery a star — in real life this official is called “C,” for “Chief”), played by Richard Roxburgh, recruits an odd assortment of characters in late-Victorian fiction, including a grown-up Tom Sawyer who’s an American secret service agent (Shane West), Captain Nemo (Naseerrudin Shah) — who contributes his own set of high-tech devices, not only the submarine Nautilus but also a 1930’s-style car which looks incredibly anachronistic in an 1899 setting (the script pretends that automobiles of any sort didn’t exist in 1899, which is not true), to the effort — Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend), Dr. Henry Jekyll (Jason Flemyng), Rodney Skinner (Tony Curran) — a sneak thief who stole the invisibility formula invented by Jack Griffin in H. G. Wells’ The Invisible Man and took it himself — and Mina Harker (Peta Wilson), who in this version of her story was permanently turned into a vampire herself as a result of her interaction with Count Dracula.

Midway through the action, when the characters have moved from London through Paris and are now in Venice at the peace conference, the city starts literally blowing up around them and the big switcheroo comes: “M” is really The Fantom and Dorian Gray is in league with him (and maybe Skinner is too — his loyalties are pretty ambiguously drawn). Directed by Stephen Norrington and acted by a quite capable cast of the usually efficient British actors (as I’ve wondered in these pages before, is there something special about the Brits that keeps cranking out these great actors? Is it genetic? More likely it’s the existence of an extensive network of publicly subsidized acting schools and theatres that preserve this tradition and extend it to future generations), The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has the typical failing of a movie based on a comic book — excuse me, a “graphic novel” — a series of absolutely stunning visuals hooked onto a plot that made no sense. Alan Moore not only allowed his name on the credits (the last time he’s done that for an adaptation of his work) but even testified on behalf of 20th Century-Fox when producer Martin Poll and screenwriter Larry Cohen filed a plagiarism suit against the studio, claiming that The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was ripped off from an unproduced script of theirs called Cast of Characters. “They seemed to believe that the head of 20th Century Fox called me up and persuaded me to steal this screenplay, turning it into a comic book they could then adapt back into a movie, to camouflage petty larceny,” Moore said. Nonetheless, the studio paid a settlement to Poll and Cohen, which seems to have so incensed Moore it soured him on the film world in general, and for the next project based on one of his stories, “V” for Vendetta, Moore not only declined credit but denounced the movie far and wide. (Actually “V” for Vendetta is a considerably better movie than The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen; though I haven’t read Moore’s original — I generally don’t read comic books or “graphic novels” anymore — I suspect the changes the Wachowski siblings, who wrote and produced the film, made turned it into a story that actually made sense and had a genuinely tragic arc for its central character.)

The film is absolutely stunning visually but after a while you just have to abandon any hope that the story is going to make sense and just groove on how gorgeous it all looks — and the lack of much in the way of character motivation leaves a highly talented cast pretty much at sea, though Peta Wilson (even if her name sounds like Pete Wilson underwent gender reassignment and became an animal-rights activist) brings Mina Harker to vivid life and looks like she and the character deserved a better movie (like a direct sequel to Dracula in which she continues the vampiric tradition Dracula started) and Shane West is cute and effective as the one American in the dramatis personae. (His page says he was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and shows a tall, dark and broodingly intense head shot that doesn’t look like the tow-headed blonde he is in this film.) As for Connery, he’s fun to watch even though he’s pretty obviously being doubled in his big action scenes, especially the one early on in which he’s taken on in Africa by a whole gang of machine-gun armed assailants sent by the Fantom as a pre-emptive strike — let’s face it, the man is not only playing Alan Quatermain but had previously played James Bond (and indeed it might be a nice project to have Connery as a retired, gentlemanly Bond called back into action for one final case), so the Fantom’s assassins, despite out-numbering and out-weaponing him, didn’t stand a chance!