The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)
2003’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (also known by its stupid marketing title of LXG) brings to life the graphic novel of the same name by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill. The comic and the movie unite famous literary (and now public domain) characters of the day, from novels by the likes of Jules Verne, Bram Stoker, Robert Louis Stevenson, and many others. Moore’s original concept was to bring together a sort of “Justice League of Victorian England”, but while the comic was a commercial and critical success, the film falls way short of its source material, with painful dialogue, incoherent action scenes, and a cast of characters (led by Sean Connery totally phoning it in) who all come off as thoroughly unlikeable.
We begin in London, 1899. A tank rolls through the streets, confusing the police who have never seen such an advanced machine before. The tank breaks into the Bank of England, and out pops a disfigured man in a silver mask who steals Da Vinci’s blueprints for Venice before vanishing into the night. Everyone panics and the Germans are blamed for the attack.
Shortly thereafter, another tank attack occurs in Berlin, where the same masked man kidnaps German scientists and uses a shoulder-mounted rocket to blow up zeppelins, and this time, Germany blames England. All this turmoil leaves the world on the brink of war.
In response, the British Empire sends a man to Africa in search of legendary huntsman Allan Quatermain (Connery). Quatermain, having washed his hands of the British Empire when his son died, is naturally reluctant, until a group of men show up and try to kill him.
This motivates Quatermain to leave for London to meet up with a man called “M” (Richard Roxburgh), and yes, we get the obligatory Connery reaction shot to make the Bond in-joke clear. M informs Quatermain that the man in the silver mask is calling himself the Fantom (“Very operatic,” Quatermain unsubtly notes) and he’s hoping to start a war so that every nation will want to buy his advanced weaponry.
M quickly introduces Quatermain to a pirate named Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah), the vampiric Mina Harker (Peta Wilson), and an invisible man named Rodney Skinner (Tony Curran)—so named because they couldn’t get the movie rights to Wells’ original character of Griffin. M hails them all for their amazing talents, and sends them on a mission to recruit Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend).
To get there, they all climb into Nemo’s strange new vehicle which he calls an “aut-o-mo-bile”, driven by his first mate who announces, “Call me Ishmael.” (Yeah, okay.)
Once they arrive, Quatermain looks at Dorian Gray’s wall and notes, “You’re missing a picture, Mr. Gray!” In case you were unclear about which Dorian Gray this is. After making references to Gray’s unaging nature, Quatermain talks about how he himself once saved a village in Africa, and as a result a witch doctor blessed him, saying that “Africa would never allow [him] to die,” which will obviously be important later.
Gray’s home is suddenly invaded by the Fantom and his men, all carrying automatic rifles, which is when Tom Sawyer (Shane West) of the U.S. Secret Service comes to their rescue (Sawyer isn’t in the comic, but was added to the film because I guess American audiences can’t be expected to care about a movie unless it has a token American character). In the ensuing gunfight, it turns out Dorian Gray is impervious to bullets, and Mina Harker shows her true vampiric nature when she chows down on a goon’s throat.
The Fantom manages to escape, and in the aftermath of the fight, both Dorian Gray and Tom Sawyer decide to join the team. They then climb aboard the Nautilus, Nemo’s ludicrously enormous submarine, and head to Paris, where they recruit the Hulk, I mean Mr. Hyde (Jason Flemyng), who soon changes back to Dr. Jekyll.
After Jekyll joins up, the “league is set”, and they jump into gear to stop the Fantom’s plans to attack Venice during an important conference. But it takes them days to get there, and along the way, Mina Harker and Dorian Gray hook up (it seems they’re ex-lovers), while Quatermain bonds with Sawyer, who apparently reminds him of his dead son. Meanwhile, Hyde finds a vial of his potion missing, and he assumes Skinner the Invisible Man stole it, and it isn’t long before everyone decides (for pretty much no reason) that Skinner is a traitor secretly working for the Fantom.
Once they reach Venice, they discover the Fantom’s plan is to sink Venice entirely. So they use Nemo’s car to speed around the city (yes, this is the film that notoriously and dumbly features a car chase in Venice) and blow up one particular building, which somehow stops the “domino effect” that would have destroyed the city. Meanwhile, Quatermain chases the Fantom into a cemetery, where he rips off his mask and reveals himself to be M, the very man that brought the group together. This is somehow meant to be a huge shock, even though we know nothing about the guy and he was onscreen for all of two minutes.
At the same time, it’s revealed that Dorian Gray is the one working for the Fantom, not Skinner. He’s stolen Hyde’s potion and various other items, and he escapes from the Nautilus in a bubble shaped craft that is apparently Nemo’s “exploration pod”.
As the League follows the pod, they find a phonograph record left behind by M and Gray, where the bad guys decide to explain their entire evil scheme, just because. Along with Jekyll’s potion, Gray has collected a skin sample from Skinner, a blood sample from Harker, and various bits of Nemo’s technology. M plans to use all these items to create a formula for super-strong invisible vampire warriors, I guess, and then sell it to the highest bidder. Also, it turns out the phonograph record contains ultrasonic noises that trigger bombs all over the ship. But with a little help from Mr. Hyde, Nemo’s ship is saved and they soon receive Morse code messages from Skinner, who secretly stowed away aboard the pod.
Skinner feeds them coordinates which eventually lead to M’s factory in the “frozen lakes of Mongolia”. The League sneaks in, where they find M’s men building tanks and suits of armor and giant submarines exactly like the Nautilus. Skinner plants bombs all over the factory, while Quatermain confronts M, and Sawyer gets into a fight with some guy who took the invisibility formula. Meanwhile, Hyde fights a random goon who chugs way too much of Hyde’s potion, which turns him into the Abomination, I mean, a grotesque pink monster.
Meanwhile, Harker duels with Gray, but it seems they both have instant healing abilities and the fight goes nowhere. He drives a knife through her heart, killing her, but then later he takes the knife out for no reason and she returns to life. At long last, she shows him his portrait, which immediately causes him to turn old while the portrait turns young, and he disintegrates into dust before our eyes.
The bombs go off and M’s factory is quickly destroyed. Quatermain has a final duel with M, where he announces that M is really “Professor Moriarty”, but there’s no clue of how he figured that out, and it’s just another dumb, meaningless twist.
M stabs Quatermain in the back and makes his escape with the potions, but doesn’t get far before Sawyer takes him out with some long distance sharpshooting. M is dead, but so is Quatermain. The League takes his body back to Africa to bury him next to his son. But after they all go their separate ways, a witch doctor dances near Quatermain’s grave (and in case you can’t remember all the way back to the beginning of the movie, right before this, Jekyll reminds us that “Africa would never let him die”). Eventually, the dirt on Quatermain’s grave begins to rumble and shake and we cut to black, thus setting up the sequel that thankfully never happened.
As with other adaptations of Alan Moore’s work, including V for Vendetta and Constantine and Watchmen, Moore has done all he can to distance himself from the movie version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The film was soon the target of a lawsuit over similarities to another unproduced screenplay, and Moore himself was named in the suit. This was apparently the last straw for him, and ever since then, Moore has asked that his name be removed from all movie adaptations of his work.
Watch the film version of LXG and you’ll understand his frustrations. Unlike the much more subdued comic, the film is your typical action fare, with lots of obvious one-liners being uttered just before big shootouts and chases. In fact, I would say this movie contains no actual dialogue; just endless action-movie quips. The problem comes when these lines are delivered as if they’re the most brilliant stuff ever written, when in reality, we’ve got scenes like Dorian Gray impaling Mina and saying, “I hoped I’d get to nail you one more time. I didn’t think it’d be literally!”
The film of course knocks you over the head with its anachronisms; from everything from tanks, to automatic weapons, to sports cars, the movie can’t resist making sure we know that these things aren’t supposed to exist in 1899. And the literary allusions are treated in the same ham-fisted way, which often backfires. For example, the movie depicts Dorian Gray dying because he looked at his own portrait, which isn’t the case in the book at all. In the novel, he looks at his portrait constantly until it starts to drive him mad. Also, when we finally see the portrait, it has to be at least three sizes larger than what was supposedly hanging on his wall.
And Mina Harker, a much more ambiguous and strong-willed character in the comic, is turned into a standard-issue sexy vampire who inexplicably gets turned on by the sight of her own blood. Of course, giving Quatermain obnoxious sexist views about the place of a woman on the team, and making the only female character a sex symbol and forcing three of the male characters to have the hots for her doesn’t help matters.
All the effects in this movie are way overdone, in particular the ridiculous CGI. The Nautilus appears to be at least six or seven stories high, and somehow is still able to navigate through the canals of Venice. The interiors of the ship are similarly overdone, and come off like set design porn. That pretty much goes for the whole movie: everything is just way too big and over the top, leaving little space for the characters to reveal enough personality for us to give a crap what happens to any of them.
Which wouldn’t be so bad if the action were decent, but most of it is edited into incoherence. As soon as a fight scene starts in this movie, you almost instantly want it to be over, because you can’t tell what’s going on and it obviously doesn’t matter who wins or loses. Also, what sort of action movie grinds to a halt in its first act for a three-day boat trip where basically nothing happens? I think this extended lull in the action is what kills the movie more than anything.
But the worst part is that LXG was pretty much Sean Connery’s final film before he went into retirement. It’s unclear how much of a role the movie played in his decision, but he was soon complaining about being “fed up with the idiots”, and “the ever-widening gap between people who know how to make movies, and those who greenlight them.” He also called director Stephen Norrington “insane”, and there are stories of the two almost coming to blows on the set. Norrington was previously known for directing Blade, and it seems this film inspired him to go into retirement as well, as he hasn’t directed a film since.
But despite this disaster, there have been various rumors over the years of a possible League of Extraordinary Gentleman TV show to air on Fox. I suppose it’s not the worst possible idea; after all, the Constantine TV series seems to be a vast improvement over the Constantine movie. But seeing as how there hasn’t been any news on that front since 2013, the project is probably dead. Alan Moore should be happy.
[—This review contains additional material by Dr. Winston O’Boogie.]