The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

“The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” begins with a squad of British police officers in 1899 being brought into a severe state of befuddlement when a tank full of Germans shows up and rams into a bank building. This is alarming not because they are Germans — though I think that’s plenty alarming in and of itself — but because in 1899, tanks don’t exist yet. The Bobbies respond mostly by whapping on it with their batons.

A few minutes later in the movie, in Germany, a warehouse full of zeppelins gets blown up. All of this is the work of a mysterious figure called the Phantom, who seeks to pit the world at war against itself so that he may profit from the sale of his new futuristic battle technology. The film is curiously mum on how he got the technology; given that the film is about literary heroes co-existing in one universe, I suppose we are left to assume he obtained H.G. Wells’ time machine and brought everything back to 1899. Or maybe he’s FROM the future. I don’t know, or care.

Anyway, thus begins the anemic and forgettable — but not entirely unlikable — “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.” Like most films, it is based on a comic book, and one whose premise delights me: fictional characters like Allan Quatermain, Captain Nemo, Dorian Gray and the Dr. Jekyll all hang out together and fight crime. If I had read all of the books these characters appeared in, I could probably come up with reasons why they couldn’t all exist in the same universe. But I haven’t, and neither have you, and I think the people who made the film were counting on that.

(From what I understand, the comic book is much more devoted to its numerous source materials than the movie is. Evidence: A grown-up Tom Sawyer was added for the film because the studio figured moviegoers would want to see an American.)

The first 38 minutes of the film are devoted to gathering the League. This is done by a man called M (Richard Roxburgh), who first contacts Quatermain (Sean Connery) in Africa and persuades him to help save the British Empire and the world from the Phantom. Additional members are Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah); “Dracula’s” Mina Harker (Peta Wilson), now a vampire herself; a guy (Rodney Skinner) who stole the Invisible Man’s formula, but not the Invisible Man himself, because they couldn’t get permission from the copyright holder; Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend), who has the power of being unkillable; Tom Sawyer (Shane West), now a CIA agent or something; and Dr. Jekyll (Jason Flemyng), still wrestling with that split-personality thing.

Then there’s a 14-minute second act where we learn everyone’s dark secrets and personal demons. James Dale Robinson’s screenplay lays everything out in a neat, orderly fashion that eliminates all the guesswork. If he were writing a quarterly report for a corporation, that would be an admirable skill. For an adventure film, it’s a bit less so. Stephen Norrington’s direction — which suggests to me he was NOT a huge fan of the comic book — is perfunctory and adds nothing.

Then the gang’s off to Venice to protect a summit meeting of Europe’s leaders, a gathering the Phantom is rumored to be targeting. The expected twists and turns occur, and the heroes get to use their particular powers in particular ways. None of it is especially imaginative; in fact, it says a lot about a movie when it can take place in an era pre-dating automobiles, yet still manage to have a speeding car chase, like this one does.

But it’s not completely useless. Some of the fights in the final act are rather fun, and Jekyll’s transformation into Mr. Hyde is a grotesque marvel. I hear a lot of people dismissing the film as dumb, and its premise especially so, but I don’t think it’s inherently any stupider than any other superhero flick. Its dumbness is in flinging the same old action-movie clichés at us and expecting us to think they’re new just because they’re set in Victorian England. Well, and also in having Mina Harker hanging out in the afternoon sun without a word of explanation. Surely even the people who made this movie can’t be so dumb as to not know vampires can’t tolerate sunlight. But the alternative — that they thought WE would be too dumb to know that — is even more unsettling.

C+ (1 hr., 50 min.; PG-13, some very mild profanity, some very mild innuendo, a lot of action-related violence and fighting.)