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The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

In times of peril to the Empire, loyal subjects answer the call. Men (and women) of unique abilities gather to form a league dedicated to destroying threats to peace, a league of extraordinary gentlemen.

As a high concept, it's brilliant. It's no wonder that producer Don Murphy, a huge comics fan anyway, snapped up the rights to Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's graphic novel. If it hadn't been a comic book, somebody would have thought of it for a movie eventually anyway.

It would have been just as cheap and entertaining as the penny dreadfuls of its inspiration, no matter the source. If you want literate, intricate storytelling, do read Moore and O'Neill's work. Then don't be surprised that the film The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, while of course very different, captures the same spirit and translates it for the somewhat louder and yes, somewhat dumber, "needs" of the summer movie season. What emerges is no less fun, but also a little less able to stand up to scrutiny.

Screenwriter James Dale Robinson knows that he can't count on audiences knowing who all the characters are, but also that he can't spend too much time on exposition. Striking a difficult balance, he reduces most of the league to what an audience might think it knows. Only Allan Quatermain (Sean Connery) gets time to himself; appropriate as he's the most obscure of them. And also because Connery is the most recognizable of the actors.

Everyone else gets shorthand introductions. In the case of The Invisible Man (Tony Curran), there's a little bit of explaining that he's not actually the same one from H.G. Wells' novel, but it's not like that would have been a sticking point for most. True to the graphic novel, the most likely surprise for audiences will be Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah), an Indian Prince as revealed in one of Jules Verne's novels, but rarely portrayed as such in popular entertainment.

But why quibble? Really, what everybody wants to see is action, with slight justification for it. Robinson has taken a fairly accurate historical backdrop, with millennial fears near the turn of the 19th Century. The mysterious Fantom ("how operatic," comments Quatermain) has planted the seeds for a world war, from which he shall profit by selling his futuristic weaponry.

Naturally, the League must stop him, in a triptych that would be at home in any Bond film. Heck, they're even gathered by M (Richard Roxburgh). From London they journey to Paris to recruit Mr. Hyde (Jason Flemyng), then on to Venice. So swiftly does the film move, and so willing is it to keep piling on action, that their improbable task in the floating city comes rushing at us before we can even quite process what's going on.

For of course, the true motivations and identities of the characters is in doubt. Aboard the Nautilus (a beautiful shining sword of the sea, or perhaps compensation for Nemo's manhood), it's clear that someone has been gathering information on the team. And unfortunately for the script, the only way to throw a red herring in the audience's minds is to simply have a character disappear for a while.

But before you can think too hard, the movie bounds off toward another destination. Director Stephen Norrington is not quite a style over substance guy; though he rushes his action sequences a bit and seems a little uncomfortable with quieter moments, there's still an energy that overcomes his flaws. At least for momentary fun.

Occasionally, the film looks edited for time, rather than sense. Through performance, we can see the struggle Dr. Jekyll has over the beast within himself, but somewhere halfway through Mr. Hyde has a change of heart that just sort of …happens. To chalk it up to pride in a job well-done just doesn't cut it. Something is missing. As noted above, so is someone for a good chunk.

What holds it all together is personality. Connery's, of course, dominates the film as he has been rumored to have dominated the set. But it's appropriate, as Quatermain the character is the old lion overcoming his own misgivings for one last adventure. This won't be Connery's last adventure, as he has signed for Indiana Jones IV, but there's still a poignancy to this role made heavier by his age.

But the lesser-knowns make their mark. In a potentially thankless role, Peta Wilson plays vampire Mina Harker with a cold delicacy that belies the beast within. And as Jekyll and Hyde, Flemyng gets to revel in that beast.

Perhaps the riskiest addition is in the most obvious sop to American teen audiences, Tom Sawyer. WB star (take that as you will) Shane West affects a Missouri accent that varies in quality, but he has a likeable energy and seems more legitimately tough than many young actors that try to wear that mantle. (Literarily, becoming a Secret Service agent seems a fitting fate for Tom Sawyer, whose last Mark Twain adventure was as a boy detective.)

The film also reaches back into trying to do things the old-fashioned way as much as possible. Perhaps the crew could have relied more on miniatures than CG, but that the film is willing at all seems a breath of fresh air and a nod back to the guys who tried to be imaginative in creating their magic. Even Mr. Hyde is done live in many if not most shots; the only time they have to depend on computers is in creating a super-Hyde closer to artist O'Neill's rendition.

Read the comic. Read the original novels, if you can find them. You'll be a smarter person for it. But for gosh sakes, don't let that stop you from enjoying the giddy fun to be had here. It may be trash, but it's high quality trash.

What's It Worth? $7

Derek McCaw

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