It's axiomatic among film critics that the movies have gone to the dogs, or more precisely to teenage boys. Given the current crop of cheerlessly noisy entertainments, such bitterness is understandable, but then again it's summer. Summer is the critics' season of discontent, the time when movies seem coarser, louder and held hostage by stories simple enough to wrap around a slab of Bazooka bubble gum.
Every so often blame gets directed at the superheroes and freaks who have invaded Hollywood — and although "Daredevil" was a dud, Tim Burton's "Batman" ruled and "Spider-Man" wasn't all that bad, at least until he went digital. The movies always need big heroes and villains, and comic books are one of the few remaining resources that can satisfy its hunger for characters of a mythic scale. But the movies don't always do right by comics, and, to judge by "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," the latest comic to hit the big screen, it's clear that the problem isn't with the source material: Comic books aren't giving movies a bad name — it's the reverse.
A cheeky pastiche of late 19th century manners and late 20th century attitude about a quintet of unlikely avengers, the original "Extraordinary" was written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Kevin O'Neill. Moore, whose graphic novel about Jack the Ripper, "From Hell," was turned into a lugubrious big-ticket slasher flick a few years ago by Allen and Albert Hughes, has a thing for history and historical figures and a witty facility for mixing high art with low. At the center of the "Extraordinary" story are characters plucked from five famous tales, a "parade of curiosities" who, having been tapped by the crown for a mission involving world domination or some such, have joined to form a kind of fin-de-siècle Fantastic Four, except that they actually number five.
The movie's league encompasses seven and now adheres to a strict pecking order. Leading the pack is Allan Quatermain, the proto-Indiana Jones adventurer from H. Rider Haggard's "King Solomon's Mines" played by Indy's screen dad, the eternal James Bond, Sean Connery. Bringing up the rear are Mina Harker from Bram Stoker's "Dracula" (Peta Wilson from cable's "La Femme Nikita"); Jules Verne's Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah); Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and his raging alter ego, Mr. Hyde (Jason Flemyng and a special-effects hulk with orangutan arms); and an invisible man (Tony Curran), modeled on H.G. Wells' Hawley Griffin but now called Rodney Skinner. The other leaguers are Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend) and the movie's own creation, the adult Tom Sawyer (Shane West), who has no business being in this movie or any other.
An obvious stand-in for the American audience or at least those aforementioned teenage boys, Sawyer has been brought on as a foil for Connery, a surrogate son for Quatermain's growling papa bear. Now age 72, gently thickened and slowed, Connery waged some widely publicized battles with the movie's director, Stephen Norrington, during the shoot ("ask me about someone I like," he later sniped to one reporter). Norrington has directed a clutch of films, including the nifty vampire flick "Blade," and has a background working in special effects on movies such as "Aliens." From looks of his new film's painterly computer-graphic cityscapes and meticulously designed interiors, he has a fine eye for production design and authentically epic-sized ambitions. What he doesn't have is a talent for working around a lousy script.
Words that are written to be read on a page function differently from words that are written to be heard and accompanied by moving pictures, which makes comparing source material with its scripted translation a fruitless exercise. What should emerge from an adapted screenplay is a sense of the original's flavor and vibe — some feeling for its essence. Norrington's film shares the comic's title and trappings but bears little relationship to the flavor and vibe of Moore fantasia. The problem isn't the changes per se — Quatermain's no longer hooked on opium and former league leader Mina has been demoted to second fiddle — plenty of good adaptations take liberties. It's that the filmmakers have traded Moore's playful intelligence and rakish wit for special effects and big bangs.
These guys have dumbed down a comic book.
Maybe there's a lesson to be learned from this, maybe not. The movie, finally, seems too inconsequential to worry over for long, to draw conclusions about the decline of civilization or at least the movies. Like many Hollywood journeymen, Norrington will likely remain unscathed by his adventures with Allan Quatermain, although the same may not be true for screenwriter James Dale Robinson or whomever put words like "whoa" into Tom Sawyer's mouth. Despite their dialogue, the actors acquit themselves without embarrassment and Peta Wilson goes everyone one better. Her character may have been busted down in rank and radically transformed — instead of frocks, Mina now wears dominatrix leather — but that hasn't stopped the actress from delivering the film's juiciest, most diverting performance. The movie bites, she draws blood.
'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen'
MPAA rating: PG-13, for intense sequences of fantasy violence, language and innuendo
Times guidelines: Bloody violence, some sexual suggestiveness
Sean Connery ... Allan Quatermain
Shane West ... Tom Sawyer
Stuart Townsend ... Dorian Gray
Peta Wilson ... Mina Harker
Jason Flemyng ... Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde
Twentieth Century Fox presents in association with Mediastream III, a Don Murphy Production, released by Twentieth Century Fox. Director Stephen Norrington. Writer James Dale Robinson. Based on the comic books by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill. Producers Don Murphy, Trevor Albert. Director of photography Dan Lausten. Production designer Carol Spier. Editor Paul Rubell. Costume designer Jacqueline West. Music Trevor Jones. Casting Donna Isaacson, Lucinda Syson. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.
In general release.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times