July 11, 2003
THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN is a cool fucking premise: a sort of Victorian era Justice League made of literary characters with unique talents or abilities. In this world, the famous stories of English literature (plus Mark Twain) really happened, and the Queen puts together a super-team to try to stop an attack on Venice. So James Bond’s M (Richard Roxburgh, VAN HELSING, STEALTH) recruits the adventurer hunter Alan Quatermain (Sean Connery, FIRST KNIGHT), Dracula’s Mina Harker (Peta Wilson, SUPERMAN RETURNS), the Invisible Man (but actually not the same H.G. Wells one, for legal reasons)(Tony Curran, Priest from BLADE II), Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde (Jason Flemyng, BRUISER), Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend, director of BATTLE IN SEATTLE) and Captain Nemo (veteran Bollywood star Naseeruddin Shah).
Sort of like MYSTERY MEN, this is based on a comic that’s a riff on the super hero team stories, but made when X-MEN was the only straight up movie version of that sort of thing. The comic, written by Alan Moore, is apparently very different, thicker in obscure literary allusions and lighter in summer movie type spectacle (sword fights, shoot outs, flying CGI machinery, explosions). The adaptation is credited to another comic book writer, James Robinson, who wrote alot of Superman. His previous screenwriting work was CYBER BANDITS, COMIC BOOK VILLAINS and a swing and a miss in the long line of writers trying to figure out how to do FREDDY VS. JASON.
The movie centers on Quatermain, who is retired to Africa, hanging out in a lodge (not an opium den as in Moore’s more depraved version), until an attack compels him to agree to the mission. When dorky American Secret Service agent Tom Sawyer (Shane West, DRACULA 2000) joins the team he immediately starts following Quatermain trying to be his surrogate son. Quatermain blatantly takes the bait and tries to bond by giving him unsolicited marksmanship tips.
Most of the other characters have what amounts to super powers. Dorian Gray is immortal, which allows him to heal instantly during sword fights. In the comic Mina is the leader, working only with her smarts. In this version Dracula bit her, so she can leap far and transform into a swarm of bats. I don’t have to tell you what the invisible man does, but there are jokes about him being naked when he’s invisible. Most of the time he has white paint on his face to make himself visible. I don’t get why he has stubble.
And Mr. Hyde functions as the Incredible Hulk of the team. Dr. Jekyll is legitimately scared of unleashing the “big ape,” and tries to avoid unleashing him. He hears his taunts and sees his face reflected in things. But they sort of learn to get along when Hyde starts to care about the team and the mission and know when his strength is needed. One thing that’s pretty remarkable about Hyde that I didn’t appreciate at all back in 2003 is that director Stephen Norrington (motherfucking BLADE) insisted on doing him without CG. So Flemyng wears a huge rubber chest and arms and is composited in so that he can dwarf the other team members. I wouldn’t say he looks better than the CG Hulks, but he looks different. Kind of reminds me of Hellboy, too.
But Nemo is by far the coolest character, and he has no powers. He’s a guy who knows how to swash a few buckles, and has great resources at hand, including a loyal army and his luxury submarine the Nautilus, aka “the sword of the sea.”
Original comic artist Kevin O’Neill did some uncredited designs for the movie, and they captured some of his style in Nemo’s ornate, India-inspired technology. Of course there’s the sub:
Which is stocked with many cool things, including this three dimensional wall map for planning sessions:
And these extravagant diving suits for underwater bomb searches:
He also invented the automobile early, and gave it a then-futuristic-design and accoutrements similar to those of Nautilus. I’m totally down with this absurdly beautiful vehicle…
…but I have to say it bothered me that in a world where no one has seen an automobile until now, Sawyer is able to hop in and instinctively know how to drive like a professional street racer, no questions asked. Also, that he would know this term:
…and even moreso, that Quatermain would know to refer to this brand new thing as “the car” and everybody would know what that was.
Now is as good of a time as any to mention that when I saw this in the theater 14 years ago I thought it was complete shit. The return of the director of BLADE was a holiday and I had hoped for more presents. That car business was an example I would’ve cited of the movie’s shittiness, and I haven’t changed on that one. But other things, like Quatermain calling the Phantom “operatic” and Nemo’s first mate saying “Call me Ishmael” weren’t nearly as egregious as in my memory. Maybe even kind of funny!
I also appreciated Connery’s presence more than I did last time. I can’t find the quote, but I remember reading that Connery “didn’t get” THE MATRIX when he was offered the part of Morpheus, and “didn’t get” LORD OF THE RINGS when he was offered Gandalf, so when he was offered this and didn’t get it he decided to take it. It’s easy to imagine him being awful in those other roles, but this I think he works well for. There’s kind of a meta quality going on with him playing the old but still macho way-past-his-prime legend. If the movie had not gone over terribly, it would be kind of cool that he retired after this (other than voices for a video game and a cartoon).
Listening to some of the commentary track of producer Don Murphy made me not want to be so easy on the movie this time. He has this smarmy condescension toward speculative “purists” who he says will not understand the movie, pre-emptively whining about how stupid he thinks they will be. I hadn’t thought about that guy in a long time, though I read about his antics in a book about NATURAL BORN KILLERS and remember both his abrasive internet presence and everyone celebrating him getting punched in the face by Quentin Tarantino. He seems to still be working, but you don’t hear about him being a raging asshole online, so I’d like to think he’s chilled out over the years. So maybe he would be calm and respectful if I asked him why Quatermain is spelled “Quartermain” on his son’s grave.
But the truth is, completely unexpectedly, I think I’ve turned around on THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN. It would be nice if some of the characters were a little more likable, and had stronger connections to their literary origins – like, if they didn’t tell us that was Tom Sawyer would there be anything to tell us that’s who he was? And most of the arcs – reluctantly gelling as a team, Sawyer learning how to shoot better from one bullshit thing that Quatermain said to him, etc. – are so threadbare and routine that my accepting them might be too charitable.
But coming into it already knowing its flaws, and without the lofty expectations of a followup to BLADE, I’m able to appreciate it as a pretty fun execution of a cool gimmick, with some unique imagery and a vibe that still hasn’t really been captured very much in the many years since. I can picture that if it was more of an underdog movie, an indie or a foreign release that not many people know about, I would recommend it to people like I sometimes do WOLFHOUND or THE EXTRAORDINARY ADVENTURES OF ADELE BLANC-SEC. Especially the latter, because I don’t know very movies that have EXTRAORDINARY in the title.
It’s exciting when they start working together. The guard at a snowy fortress suddenly sees his gun fly out of his hands and whack him over the head. Then the bats fly in. Then Mr. Hyde stomps in. He gets to fight a guy who drinks way too much of his own formula, a chintzier but arguably cooler version of The Hulk and The Abomination fighting in THE INCREDIBLE HULK. Check out this monster:
I’m sure many would classify this as “bad CGI,” but I like the stylized, almost stop-motion-model style of it; how plasticky he looks. (He’s not actually plastic, is he?) His design evokes both the O’Neill comic art and Norrington’s aesthetic of the exploding Blood God in BLADE. And I’m pretty sure there are some shots that are digital monster fighting Flemyng in rubber suit. That’s pretty cool. “What was it like acting against nothing while wearing a thousand pounds of makeup?”
I like this world, which now would be called steampunk, but I’d never heard that word back then. I love the Nemo technology – obsolete futuristic. The villain is building an army of cool-looking retro robots (or is that just armor?) and he has a particularly cool way of attacking the Nautilus. This phantom menace reveals himself by leaving a record onboard. When the team listens to it on their phonograph they hear his big speech explaining how he tricked them and what he’s up to, then reveals that the reason he did that is to allow an undetectable high-pitched sound to play in the background, to vibrate the crystal sensors attached to bombs planted all around the submarine. That’s a fucking cool evil scheme! I always thought of this as a dumb movie, but that’s not fair. There are some good ideas here within a specific style of outlandishness.
* * *
Although THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN was not really noticed enough to become infamous, it was in many ways a disaster. Much like WATERWORLD, a flood destroyed millions of dollars worth of sets and caused weeks of delays. And according to an Entertainment Weekly article at the time, Connery and Norrington hated each other and constantly fought. The star and some of the crew felt that Norrington worked way too slow and shot too much unnecessary footage. The article quotes an anonymous stagehand as saying, “I’ve never been on a set as tense as this. Everybody just wants to go home.”
Norrington, who had never worked on a movie of this size, felt pushed around by both Connery and the studio. The Dail Mail claimed that Connery took over post-production, “overseeing the editing process.” Fox pushed to have it ready to release in the summer so that MASTER AND COMMANDER could fill their Fall slot. They also made them add Tom Sawyer to the script so there would be an American character.
Or was that why? According to a lawsuit filed by producer Martin Poll (THE LION IN WINTER) and the great screenwriter Larry Cohen (A RETURN TO SALEM’S LOT), the movie bore suspicious similarity to CAST OF CHARACTERS, an idea they’d pitched to Fox a decade earlier. Like Moore’s comic book it involved a team of literature-based Victorian super heroes. Some, like Alan Quatermain and Jekyll & Hyde, overlapped with Moore’s. Theirs also included Dorian Gray, the Phantom and Tom Sawyer, all added for the movie.
CAST OF CHARACTERS was to be directed by John Landis, by the way.
Moore, already very cynical about adaptations of his work, understandably took offense at the lawsuit’s claim that he only made the comic book as a smokescreen for the studio to steal Cohen’s idea. When Fox chose to settle, as if there was merit to the suit, Moore was so disgusted that he has refused to be credited on movies ever since. He couldn’t stop them from making CONSTANTINE, V FOR VENDETTA, WATCHMEN or BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE, but he wouldn’t let them put his name on them or even give him money for them.
(Though I have great respect for Cohen, I think the accusations against Moore are clearly without merit, and it’s too bad that whole thing happened.)
Surprisingly, LXG (as they abbreviated it in advertising) was not merchandised at all. Maybe they remembered all the THE SHADOW action figures collecting dust. The only evidence of promos I can find on ebay are some pins, German lobby cards and a set of character cards that came in a leather pouch with the logo on it. It did have a novelization by Kevin J. Anderson, who also did the TITAN A.E. spin-off books.
At the box office it wasn’t a complete failure either. It made more than double its reported budget, so it must’ve at least broken even. It opened at number two though because of something almost nobody predicted: turns out this movie it’s opening against that’s based on a theme park ride (PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL) is actually good. Other dominant summer of 2003 movies included FINDING NEMO, THE MATRIX RELOADED, BRUCE ALMIGHTY, TERMINATOR 3, X2: X-MEN UNITED and BAD BOYS II.
But this was not one of those movies that I was in the minority for hating. It was poorly reviewed, and I do not sense any improvement in its reputation since. To give you an idea of LXG’s place in comic book film history, it is available on a triple feature blu-ray with DAREDEVIL and ELEKTRA.
Tragically, Norrington has not directed another movie since. Legend has it that, much like Moore, the experience put him off ever working in Hollywood again. But he has attempted to return at times, developing the CLASH OF THE TITANS remake (before Louis Letterier did it) and also one of THE CROW (which still hasn’t happened but several directors have been attached since he left). If IMDb is to be trusted, he’s also done some creature sculpting for EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING, FEAST and HARBINGER DOWN. Once an effects artist, always an effects artist.
Moore’s idea, meanwhile, survives, with the writer and O’Neill continuing to publish occasional new volumes and a spin-off about Nemo’s daughter. And producers have not given up on adapting it – a potential TV series was announced in 2013, and a new movie version in 2015. Producer John Davis (PREDATOR, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.) said in an interview that he was aiming for what people liked about the comics, including being “female-centric,” presumably meaning it would go back to having Mina as the leader and main character.
I kind of doubt it will happen. But I bet it could work.
P.S. New contest! I will send a signed copy of one of my books to the first professional athlete who retires and gives a tearful speech that casually uses the title of this movie. For example, “I want to thank the MLB. You made my dreams come true. You are truly a league of extraordinary gentlemen.”
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.