Sean Connery ’s career ended with a whimper not a bang. The League of Extraordinary Gentleman was the famed Scottish actor’s last film before he went into retirement. It might be one of his worst. A mishmash of Victorian characters from various famous works The League of Extraordinary Gentleman has little of its own identity and what it does have is as muddied as the woeful set design.
Allan Quatermain (Sean Connery) is tasked by “M” (Richard Roxburugh) to assemble a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in order to fight an international terrorist known as the Fantom (also Richard Roxburugh). The assembled gentleman include Indian pirate Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah), U.S secret service agent Tom Sawyer (Shane West), invisible man Rodney Finch (Tony Curran), vampire chemist Mina Harker (Peta Wilson) and Hulk rip-off Dr. Jekyll/Mr Hyde (Jason Flemyng). Even writing the characters’ names in the context that they appear in the film feels and sounds ridiculous.
The plot is convoluted and filled with red herrings and twists that never feel earned or surprising because of how poorly developed the characters are. The invisible man wants to become visible again because “Once you turn invisible it’s bloody hard to turn back.” I mean come on! Mr Hyde monologues about how much he misses London in a deep, monstrous baritone that makes everything he says sound like the Hulk was trained as a Thespian. Quatermain and Harker just sound bored. Meanwhile Tom Sawyer looks like a cowboy version of Anakin Skywalker.
I don’t have much against Captain Nemo other than the lines he’s given. “I call it an au-to-mo-bile,” he says about his bas-relief car. His many miles long submarine is of a similar ostentatious design and as it thrusts high above the water’s surface he declares: “This is my Nautilus! Sword of the ocean!” His first mate Ishmael – the very same from Moby Dick – is shot halfway through the film and as someone questions the sound of an exploration pod being jettisoned Nemo responds with: “It is the sound of treachery!” Shah’s delivery and commitment to Nemo’s theatrics is one of the best parts about The League of Extraordinary Gentleman. It’s just a shame the rest of the film is so dull.
Every fight or chase looks like it came out of a straight-to-DVD action film but unfortunately The League of Extraordinary Gentleman cost $78 million so there’s really no excuse. The first is set in a Kenyan gentleman’s club so it’s at least bright even if you can tell which shots have the stuntmen and which have Connery. Things just get progressively dimmer from there. The Venice chase scene takes place on roads which I didn’t know they had in Venice. The final assault in northern Mongolia could be anywhere for all the detail onscreen. The League of Extraordinary Gentleman posits itself as a nation-hopping adventure film but it just gets progressively greyer the more countries it passes through.
It’s not like director Stephen Norrington had much excuse. After production wrapped he said he’d never direct another film and when Connery – who had many disagreements with him – was asked where Norrington was Connery responded: “Check the local asylum.” Norrington’s second feature had been Blade. A runaway success, the film proved superheroes could be lucrative given care. Unfortunately, The League of Extraordinary Gentleman would go on to show how badly superhero team-ups could go. Admittedly it too was also a runaway success commercially and it tried to give us everything modern superhero films are supposed to give us: sardonic humour, a big CGI fight and heroes worth rooting for.
The sardonic humour falls flat. The CGI fight looks like a pasty version of the Hulk fighting his larger, sunburnt brother. The heroes are barely worth watching let alone caring about. The prospect of a looming world war is seen as a boon by the villains of the film of which there are four (though three of them are played by the same man). By stealing each individual hero’s secrets they can sell them to the highest bidder and yada, yada – you get the picture.
Nothing sets or gels. One of the main issues with the script was Alan Moore distancing himself from it. The writer of the original comic has stepped away from all adaptations of his work from Watchmen to From Hell. He did the same with The League of Extraordinary Gentleman and it suffered for it. Dorian Gray is all pomp and smugness. Mina all breathy whispers and unconvincing teeth. The film doesn’t know what to do with all of these famous characters and mashes them together like children’s toys. Even a late reveal of M/Fantom as James Moriarty of Sherlock Holmes fame lends nothing other than tired sighs.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was intended – as everything is these days – to be a franchise. Yet, critical and viewer reception was so poor that plans were scuttled quicker than Captain Nemo’s submarine. Rumours still abound the film is due a resurrection with an all-female cast. That’s kind of interesting until you consider it in the context of franchise filmmaking. Oh no. Oh God no. Please no more of that.