- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 10, 2003

Being the cinematic trustee of “X-Men,” a successful movie franchise derived from science-fiction comic books, wasn’t enough for 20th Century Fox. Now the company is hustling a stupefying summer rattletrap called “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” derived from a comic-book series — or “graphic novel,” to borrow the pretentious term — of a futuristic-anachronistic-plagiaristic persuasion.

The story is set in 1899, when war clouds are gathering around war machines that weren’t quite feasible yet. The rumbling begins when London bobbies are confronted with a behemoth that constables of the next generation would recognize as a tank. It crushes one unwary officer, then bowls over the Bank of England. Heavily armored personnel with German accents emerge from the vehicle to leave surviving eyewitnesses with the impression of German perfidy.

In the immediate aftermath, a dirigible factory in Germany is infiltrated by commandos with suspicious English accents. All the blimps under construction are torched, the preamble to inflaming German opinion to match the British war fever.

The scene shifts to Nairobi, where an assassination gang attempts to murder white hunter Allan Quatermain, the fictional hero of H. Rider Haggard’s adventure novels, best sellers of the 1880s. Because Quatermain is played by Sean Connery, the assault is thwarted. Because his place of repose, a safari club, is blown up, Quatermain reasons that he might as well travel to London to listen to the explanation of the Secret Service, represented by a shadowy bureaucrat called M, played by Richard Roxburgh.

Before two private libraries in London can be shot up and torched, feeding the movie’s insatiable appetite for gunfire and arson, M informs Quatermain that a nefarious secret society is plotting to foment war in Europe. Its next outrage: a threat to blow up Venice, the site of an emergency conference of European foreign ministers. Quatermain is urged to join a band of other fictional characters in order to foil the villains.

This far-fetched A Team is meant to bring knowing smiles to readers who recognize names from the late Victorian or Edwardian period — or from lingering impressions of Classics Illustrated comic books and vintage adventure movies.

Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo is revamped as some kind of renegade Sikh rajah, played by Naseeruddin Shah, the estimable father of the bride in “Monsoon Wedding.” Nemo of India is hidden behind the most comical beard since the movies specialized in one-reel slapstick. By all rights, this Nemo should also be about 8 feet tall and 6 inches wide, because his colossal submarine, the Nautilus, is rendered as a towering sliver of a dreadnought.

The Invisible Man (Tony Curran), Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend) and Dracula victim Mina Harker (Peta Wilson) invite further suspicion that someone is hoping the A Team will self-destruct. When Gray comments, “I want to face my demons,” you’re inclined to think Dr. Sigmund Freud will be the next recruit.

M’s must-recruit list gets funnier with Dr. Jekyll (Jason Flemyng), visualized as a rampaging behemoth whose pinhead is dwarfed by an immensely muscled torso. As if one Incredible Hulk this summer weren’t enough. The final defender is Tom Sawyer, a young agent of the American Secret Service, played by Shane West and positioned as apprentice and surrogate son to Mr. Connery.

Then it’s off to Venice in the prodigious Nautilus, which somehow navigates the canals without digging a vast new canal system to accommodate its own dimensions. This bomb of an adventure spectacle reveals a self-incriminating weakness for prop time bombs. We’re supposed to believe that dozens of them almost sink poor Venice, until the heroes cleverly devise a strategic backfire detonation that somehow prevents the entire city from crumbling. Instead, the movie itself crumbles while the Venice calamity is botched as a cheapskate special-effects illusion.

There’s a rumor in circulation that Sean Connery was susceptible to this dud because he had passed on both “The Matrix” and “Lord of the Rings” and feared he was losing touch with the adventure-spectacle zeitgeist. There’s no reason why a star of his generation should be on the same wavelength with such projects, especially “The Matrix,” but it is a pity that he guessed as imprudently as he did with “League.” The industry seems to owe him one.

*

TITLE: “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”

RATING: PG-13 (Systematic violence and horror stylization in an adventure-fantasy format)

CREDITS: Directed by Stephen Norrington. Screenplay by James Dale Robinson, based on a comic-book series by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill. Cinematography by Dan Lausten. Production design by Carol Spier. Costume design by Jacqueline West. Stunt coordinator: Eddie Perez. Creature effects by Steve Johnson’s Edge FX. Visual effects by Industrial Light & Magic. Music by Trevor Jones

RUNNING TIME: 112 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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