The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen — a movie review

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was released in 2003, but I didn’t watch it until sometime after it came out on DVD. I was an avid fan of Blockbuster and Hollywood Video in those days—a card-carrying member. Broadband and streaming videos were being talked about, even then, but that felt like talking about flying cars and robot house-servants. Something from some far-flung future that I would never live to see. But, now the movie rental places have gone the way of shoehorns and buggy whips, and a movie that came out in the 21st century feels like something much, much older.

I know, seventeen years—strike that: almost eighteen years, now—is a long time. The younger you are, the longer it seems. When you get my age, it doesn’t seem so long ago. And, trust me, millennials, it really wasn’t that long ago. We are all at a juncture where we can write things such as “last century” and “this century” and still be talking about one person’s lifetime. There are a lot of us who were around in the 20th century. I doubt there’s anyone left from the 19th century now, although I suppose there could be a 120-year-old out there somewhere.

Part of the reason this movie feels older than it really is can be attributed to the setting of the story. Our story takes place during Victorian times (speaking of the 19th century). The end of the Victorian Age, to be more exact, in the year 1899 A.D. This instantly ages the film, even though the special effects are certainly from this century. The time period of the story gives it a decidedly steampunk feel, especially when Captain Nemo begins unveiling his “inventions.”

Although I didn’t know it the first time I watched the movie, this was based on a comic book series written by Alan Moore, who also wrote Watchmen. I’ve never read the series, but I understand that the filmmakers took some liberties with the source material when the comic book was adapted. It probably wouldn’t have mattered much to me if I had read the comic story, however. I’ve come to expect different takes on comic-book properties when they are adapted for the screen. In fact, the comic book publishers themselves aren’t above the occasional reboot or retcon. Superman is nearly 83-years-old. He’s been reborn many times to keep up with the times.

There is a line that can be crossed which makes me angry. Josh Trank did it with his reimagined Fantastic Four, but I wasn’t aware how much I wanted to see the superhero team I cut my Marvel eyeteeth on until I paid to see one that was the exact opposite of that. Plus, it was a crappy story, which is the worst sin Trank could commit.

Assuming that the movie retains some of Alan Moore’s original premise, Mr. Moore imagined a turn-of-the-century superhero team formed of characters plucked from 19th century literature. We’ll discuss the characters in a moment. The early star of the movie is the plot itself.

There is an attack, in 1899, upon the Bank of England by what appear to be German soldiers. The soldiers are using explosives and automatic weapons that seem a bit anachronistic to me. These soldiers are stealing blueprints detailing the foundations of Venice, Italy. Then, some time later, soldiers in British Army uniforms attack a German zeppelin factory. Both incidents put the British and German empires at each other’s throats, on the verge of a World War. Students of history will know this is a bit premature.

A mysterious British government official, who answers only to the name “M,” is apparently in charge of assembling a superhero team called The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. There is historic precedent for a team of that name, it seems. Think of it as the Justice League, with a roster that changes over the years. Like the Justice League. An evil character called Fantom—a supervillain, if you’ll allow it—is trying to start a war for his own nefarious reasons, and plans to blow up Venice during a festival because . . .

Okay, okay. The info dump became a bit tedious, and I’m not sure I understand what the Fantom is trying to achieve at all. There was too much exposition. Here’s the upshot of it, though. This Fantom guy is the Big Bad of the movie, and he’s doing Big Bad sorts of underhanded dealings and dastardly deeds. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is being formed to thwart his evil plans. Also, the Fantom himself wears a half-mask reminiscent of the Phantom of the Opera’s. A nice touch, I thought.

Now, let’s talk about the team that “M” is assembling.

Allan Quartermain (the late Sean Connery) — Quartermain is a British big game hunter and explorer whom you’ve never heard of unless you’ve read King Solomon’s Mine, the 1885 novel by H. Rider Haggard, its sequel or prequel stories. Oh, there were the Richard Chamberlain movies, also. I did read the first novel, well over a century after it was originally published, so I was familiar with Allan. His name was Quatermain in the novel, as I recall, but I’ll forgive the extra “r.” Quartermain is a natural-born leader and expert marksman who’s still mourning the death of his son.

Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah) — Captain Nemo, and his amazing submarine Nautilus, first appeared in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne. Yes, I had read this late-19th-century novel as well. Nemo is the great engineer of the group, whose inventions apparently include an early steam-powered version of the Batmobile.

Mina Harker (Peta Wilson) — You recognize the name “Harker” from Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. This version of Mina is also a vampire, we come to find out, a fate she was able to escape in the novel. Yep, I read it.

Rodney Skinner (Tony Curran) — An invisible man. Not The Invisible Man from the 1897 novel by H.G. Wells, but a different character entirely who somehow became invisible as well. I think this change was because the character rights were legally tied-up. But, it didn’t really matter to me. Somehow, I never read this book.

Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend) — From the 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde. An immortal English aristocrat. I never read the novel, but know the gist of the story.

Dr. Henry Jekyll/Mr. Edward Hyde (Jason Flemyng) — I have read the 1886 novel Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson. In this movie, Hyde is the Hulk of the team. The fact that he is being played by Jason Flemyng, who is currently the Big Bad of the wonderful Epix series Pennyworth, is just a bonus.

While he’s not initially a member of the League, we get one American addition to the team as well.

Tom Sawyer (Shane West) — Yes, that Tom Sawyer, who first appeared in Mark Twain’s 1876 novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, only now in adult form. Sawyer also appeared in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) and two other Tom Sawyer sequels, which I haven’t read yet.

Now, you have your basic premise and cast of characters. What follows is a high-energy chain of action setpieces that are truly exciting. There are doublecrosses and secret plans. Deaths and explosions. The mystery of the Fantom’s identity is eventually revealed. There are complications and twists, some of which I understood. We find out that the name “M” actually stands for a real name, one that’s not that much of a stretch when you think about 19th century literature.

Bottom line: I enjoyed this movie. This was my second viewing. It was available on Amazon Prime Video at no extra charge to me, as an Amazon Prime member. When I noticed this, I tried to remember details about the movie and found that I couldn’t, other than it starred Connery. I decided to give it another go.

It was a good action movie, I thought. Maybe not such a great superhero movie, which may have been what it was aiming for, but a good action flick. I often find this type of movie, such as the Mission Impossible, Jason Bourne, and James Bond franchises, to often have confusingly convoluted plots, which are disguised by a tremendous amount of over-the-top action sequences. I’ve discovered that my enjoyment of this type of movie was quadrupled after I stopped trying to understand everything that was going on and just enjoyed the ride.

I could sit here and nitpick, certainly. The story could have been decluttered a bit. While I’ve become comfortable with a certain degree of uncertainty in my life, a lot of viewers have not. It’s 110-minute running time seemed a bit long as well; the film felt like it needed one more pass in the editing room.

Even though the character Tom Sawyer didn’t appear in the source material, he was added, reportedly, to appeal to Americans and a younger demographic. I chuckled a little when I read this. Using a character from 1876 to appeal to a more youthful demographic. Heh-heh. While I didn’t actively dislike the character in the movie, he did feel extraneous at times. It felt like he was intended to become Quartermain’s surrogate son, but this relationship really isn’t developed on-screen.

I realize that the movie was panned by virtually every professional critic. Audiences polled by CinemaScore graded it a B- on a A+/F scale. So, not a box office hit. I think I probably would have given this a B- the first time I watched it, maybe even a C, since it apparently made no impression upon me at all at the time, good or bad. I know I enjoyed it more this time. It was probably just a result of making peace with uncertainty, as I mentioned before.

Firewater’s If-You-Can’t-Do-It-with-One-Bullet-Don’t-Do-It-at-All Report Card: B

Since it felt like an older movie already, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has aged rather well, I think. It won’t change your cinema experience forever, but it entertains you for a time. If you’ve read more of the books the characters were drawn from, I think you’ll enjoy it a bit more.

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