Thursday, 19 March 2009

Movie Review - The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen


There are some actors and actresses, a very few, who are so good that they have a real presence that can lift a whole film. If I were to make a list of these, I would include Alan Rickman, Harrison Ford, Tommy Lee Jones, Cate Blanchet, Judi Dench, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Nicole Kidman, Drew Barrymore, Kevin Spacey, Samuel L Jackson, Renee Zellweger, and Kathy Birke. (Not an exhaustive list, but many more names and you’d be falling asleep before you got to the review itself).

Now, you may well violently disagree with some of my choices in this category. In fact, I’d be surprised if you didn’t. But I suspect that one name that would appear on almost everyone’s list would be Sean Connery. Not just for being by far the best Bond, but also his performances in films like Medicine Man. His presence lifts this film above average, although I certainly wouldn’t rank it among his best performances. But the simple fact that it’s him gives the film a star quality that it could never hope to achieve through the plot or other characters in the film.

The Plot… as far as it goes…

The plot is pure hokum (although enjoyable hokum, so that’s forgiveable). In 1899 trouble is brewing that could lead to a world war, with a mysterious character called “The Phantom” causing trouble and having technology way ahead of anything the rest of the world has. A last-chance meeting is called by the leaders of Europe in Venice to avert war, but The Phantom has found out and is planning something…

Enter Alan Quartermain, reluctantly answering the call of Queen and Country to lead the eponymous League of Extraordinary Gentleman in their daring attempt to stop The Phantom… This League consists of Quartermain (Sean Connery), Dorian Gray, Captain Nemo, a vampire woman called Meena, an invisible man (not the Invisible Man as he died in the book), Dr Jekyl, and an American agent called Sawyer…

The plot is rather silly, well okay it’s extremely silly and doesn’t hold up too well to the candle of logic. However, it does hold plenty of surprises (I don’t think I foresaw any of them – that must be a first this year!), so it’s not a complete disaster.

Okay, bad bits first…

Characters – the characters are a bit thin. An attempt has been made to give them a background and personality, but not nearly enough thought has been put into this aspect of the film. They are often illogical and inconsistent, and mostly unsympathetic – you’d almost rather the villains won. There is a reason for this, but seems a tad too contrived. The characterisation is easily the weakest aspect of the film.

Also several people fall in love with the vampire woman – even the one character who could be called relatively normal – and I have serious issues with this. I know being a monster half the time etc could be a serious problem in getting a date, but I found it impossible to believe that anyone would fancy her for 3 main reasons – 1/ most of them not only knew she was a vampire but actually saw her sinking her neck into someone (I mean I know you necking on a first date would be bad form anyway buy really…), 2/ she’s cold, arrogant, and generally unfriendly to everyone in sight, and 3/ she’s just plain ugly.

As mentioned, the plot is silly and occasionally stupid, but makes up for it to a large extent by being unpredictable (in the positive sense of the word). It could have been a lot worse but pales into insignificance alongside something like either X-Men movie, which is the only thing you can really compare it too.

There are moments where one of the heroes is thrown with great force fifty feet or more and land heavily on their back – and then bounce up without so much as catching their breath! I know they’re meant to be extraordinary, but even Superman would have rubbed his back to acknowledge the idea of pain…

And just how did Nemo have what looked very much like a 1960’s Porsche Roadster? And how did Sawyer learn how to drive it instantaneously? Chasing Mr Hyde across the roottops of Paris, shooting at him and causing destruction and lots of very loud noises causes not even the winking on of a bedroom light – apparently the people of Paris are not very curious… Things like that really stretching the imagination just that little bit too far…

Oh, and one thing that I personally found irksome, I don’t know if you will. I just couldn’t take Captain Nemo seriously – he looked far too much like Clinger out of MASH! Every time he came on-screen I thought it was Clinger…

But the good bits are…

Well, overall the acting is fairly good, given the constraints of the poor characterisation. (Which basically means there’s not an awful lot of it – acting, IO mean). The film is very much action-based, and the action does indeed come fast and furious enough to stop the poor characterisation being too much of a problem. At the end of the day, no-one who’s seen the trailer or even read the synopsis would have expected an intellectual or thoughtful film anyway. And the action scenes are, on the whole, excellent.

Connery enjoys his most active film role in years, and it’s pretty tongue in check. There’s a lot of humour in the film and a lot of it works. Some of it falls rather flat. I did find myself laughing out loud quite a few times through the movie though, so it works far more often than it fails. There’s even the odd moment of subtlety – when Captain Nemo introduces his first mate, the man raises his hat to them and say: “Call me Ishmael”. (That’s the first line of “Moby Dick” – just in case you didn’t know!). The Secret Service agent who recruits them is called simply “M”, presumably an oblique reference to James Bond.

The real star of the movie is the special effects – they are just awesome. Mr Hyde is particularly impressive, with the transformation scenes superb and the split-personality scenes as technically impressive as Gollum’s in The Two Towers (though lacking that film’s thoughtfulness). The effects throughout the film are probably as good as I have ever seen in any film.

Parental Guidance

I have mixed feelings about the (European) 12A rating. On the one hand, most of the violence in the film has a rather cartoon feel to it – it doesn’t look particularly real. On the other hand, some parts, particularly with the vampire woman are unpleasant and I can see younger children being upset by them.


While on reflection there are plenty of things to criticise about the film, you don’t really notice them that much when you’re actually watching it. I went having read both glowing and derogatory reviews, so I was under no illusions, and I think that helped me enjoy it more. I’ve not left you under any delusions that this is the sort of thing to watch unless you enjoy an almost mindless action flick every so often. The combination of fantastic special effects, fast pace, twisting plotline, and of course Sean Connery make it a good choice if you’re looking for something action-oriented that will keep you on the edge of your seat without making you think too much.

I’ve seen it described as “X-Men in Victorian times”. That’s a fair description, but in my view it’s nowhere near as good a film as the first two X-men films (better than the third though, and it remains to be seen just how the Wolverine Origin movie will fare...). The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is purely an action flick, whereas X-Men one and two had superb characters and stories as well.

So when you want to watch something fun and entertaining (and can feel quite comfortable leaving your brain tucked up in bed while doing so), The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a good choice.

See Also:

CaptainD's Top Ten Superhero Movies
CaptainD's Top Ten Films of 2003

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