Rating: 2 Stars
The following review contains spoilers.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has a killer premise: What if a bunch of public-domain characters from 19th century literature were brought together into a Justice League-esque team? It made for a great comic book (well, at least initially) and the beginning of this movie feels promising. It starts when a figure named “M” (like from the James Bond) recruits the same five characters from the comics—Allan Quartermain, Mina Murray (here named Harker because they said her husband died, rather than they got divorced), Captain Nemo, Dr. Jekyll, and the Invisible Man—as well as two new ones—Dorian Gray and Tom Sawyer. Their task is to stop a masked man known as “The Phantom” (“How operatic”, Quartermain quips) from starting World War I nearly 20 years too early, and selling his new tanks and automatic rifles and suits of armor to both sides of the conflict.
Towards the film’s midpoint, things start to go downhill pretty quickly, with a whole bunch of fairly nonsensical plot complications. Someone is sabotaging the team, so of course they all suspect the Invisible Man, and his character basically leaves the movie for a while (I guess because the filmmakers didn’t want him defending himself?), before Dorian Gray reveals himself to be the real traitor (in a scene where he basically says “It wasn’t the Invisible Man who betrayed everyone after all, it was me, Dorian Gray” and then shoots Nemo’s first-mate Ishmael several times). The Invisible Man then sends Morse code back to the team, revealing he stowed away with Gray’s escape pod, and he and the Phantom are in a secret factory in China. Once the League arrives there, they learn the Phantom is actually M, and M is actually Professor Moriarty (in a scene where Quartermain basically says, “Or would you prefer we call you James Moriarty?” based on nothing and no evidence), and he actually recruited the League so Gray could get close enough to steal enough blood and magic potions and tissue samples and whatever so Moriarity could make an army of super-soldiers. Things quickly go wrong for Moriarty, he tries to run away, and Tom Sawyer shoots him in the back from hundreds of yards away using the special “be patient” advice Quartermain gave him in the film’s midpoint.
Also one of Moriarty’s henchmen drinks like a gallon of Dr. Jekyll’s potion to become super-Hyde (I guess the transformation is based on the volume of potion consumed?) and it looks really, really, really, very bad and no good.
As I said, it starts out strong. There is some great set design, and some interesting action scenes. Quartermain’s fight against some assassins at the Ye Old Colonial Oppressor’s club he hangs out at in Kenya was competently done, and a later action sequence set in Dorian Gray’s library has some nice moments. I liked when one of the characters used a ladder on wheels to knock the guns out of the hands of the assassins, and also when the Invisible Man ran into action, splashing a glass of water on his face to remove his make-up and tossing off his overcoat. The Invisible Man effects looked pretty good, and Mr. Hyde looked fairly believable for 2003 tech. I couldn’t tell how much of him was practical and how much if any was CG, but it always looked like he was physically present in the scene, which is more than I can say for a lot of giant monster men from this era.
Though it’s fairly apparent they blew their talent budget on Sean Connery and then filled out the rest of the cast with little-known actors, I think Connery does a fairly good job, and also like Peta Wilson’s Mina, and Jason Flemyng’s Dr. Jekyll.
As I said, it goes downhill fast in the movie’s second-half. The plot makes basically no sense, and the characters just do a lot of things without much rhyme or reason. The problem with big story twists is that they only work if they make the story more interesting than it was, and saying the League’s history isn’t real, and they never worked for the government, and Venice was blown up for no reason (there was never a secret conference of leaders), and that M, and the Phantom, and Moriarty are all just one guy, to me, makes the whole world of the League less interesting.
The dialogue is also very bad, with an overabundance of blunt exposition and lackluster attempts at cheesy action movie quipping (Dorian Gray to Mina after stabbing her, “I was hoping I’d get to nail you one last time”). The scene where the League finds a vinyl record in which M and Dorian Gray explain literally all the details of the plan to them, portrayed visually as the two of them in a nice drawing room staring straight into the camera, is particularly stupid.
Tom Sawyer has no stand-out background, skills, or personality traits that you could connect to his literary history. He’s just a young, long-haired, American action hero-y type of guy who can shoot guns and drive fast cars, which he does despite not being aware fast cars even existed (invented by Nemo) until he sits down in one for the first time. His inclusion in the movie was a mistake.