'League' is anything but extraordinary

It's always peeving when Hollywood takes a great idea and ruins it.

Such is the case with "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," the latest summer superhero flick -- albeit one whose source material predates Marvel Comics by nearly a century.

Based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill, the story centers around assembling an "X-Men" or "Justice League of America" team of ultra-powered crime fighters. Only this one is set in the late 1800s, and the members are culled from classic mystery, horror and adventure epics of the era.

Moore has a particular fascination with reinterpreting European history and is quite adept at cobbling together Victorian themes. His lushly detailed Jack the Ripper tome, "From Hell," was even adapted into a respectable feature two years ago.

He is not so lucky this time. While "League" employs the bare bones of Moore's work, the richness of character, elements of danger, and most of all, entertainment value, are frequently absent.

Part of the problem is that nearly every individual and reference in "League" is based upon an idea designed to work in print. There is something inviting about envisioning literary heroes and villains collide in a rejuvenated written format. It's quite another to watch them in an effects-heavy, cinematic blockbuster.

In "League," it's 1899 and a madman named the Phantom is terrorizing Europe while amassing an arsenal of never-before-seen weapons with which he hopes to dominate the new century.

A weary Allan Quartermain (Sean Connery) is lured by agents of the crown from his retirement in Kenya, because "the empire is ALWAYS in some kind of trouble." Quartermain is given the responsibility of leading a task force of mighty but unconventional members. Included are the scientist Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah), the shapeshifting Dr. Henry Jekyll (Jason Flemyng), the Invisible Man (Tony Curran) and vampiric Mina Harker (Peta Wilson).

The group must do battle with the Phantom's evil minions while also contending with the knowledge that a traitor walks among them.

Stephen Norrington ("Blade") and screenwriter James Robinson take a few liberties with the comic book tale. Two new characters are introduced, including Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend), who is immortal and invulnerable as long as his portrait is intact. And because Hollywood dictates an American MUST be part of the bunch, a "Wild Wild West"-style secret agent is tacked on, who just happens to be the grown up Tom Sawyer (Shane West).

These additions, while annoying, are not especially harmful. The real problem lies with how such vivid legends turn out so blandly on the big screen.

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League of Extraordinary Gentlemen **

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Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's terrific graphic novel is turned into a bland blockbuster, centering on a team of crime fighters that are assembled from classic mystery, horror and adventure heroes from the late 1800s. Despite vivid production design and a game performance by Sean Connery, this "League" is quite uninvolving.

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Jekyll is merely a Hulk clone, complete with a split-personality that is dramatically presented like that of The Green Goblin in "Spider-Man." Harker is just a pretty face with little individuality to go with it. (In the book she is actually the leader of the group.) Nemo may be the single most valuable component of the ensemble, yet he often behaves like an extra.

Taken as individual set pieces, Norrington stages some passable action sequences (a crowded melee in Gray's library is not without its frenetic charms). But when digested as a whole, these scenes add up to nothing because the audience doesn't care about their outcome.

This "League" is not boring, just uninvolving.

And it's often moronic.

Creators Moore and O'Neill always let on that they have a better grasp of history than the average reader. Norrington displays quite the opposite.

It's bad enough that an automobile is among the new plot accessories, one that looks like a Rolls Royce but handles like a GTO. But to use this for an unending chase scene on the streets of Venice is just asinine.
Of all the cities one could select to serve as the stage for an 1899 "car race," Venice would have to be at the bottom. Somebody might want to tell Norrington that even modern-day Venice doesn't have streets wide enough to accommodate cars.

Aside from the production design -- which is pretty slick, especially when it involves Nemo's ornate sub, The Nautilus -- there is one factor that helps hold this mess together: Connery. The 72-year-old was born to play these lionhearted roles. Like Clint Eastwood, the veteran Scot is finding new scripts that capitalize on his advancing age rather than trying to ignore it.

But this is a team effort, and the actor can only carry so much on his shoulders.

At one point Connery's adventurer turns to the man who hopes to recruit him and says, "Regale me."

Viewers who ask "The League the Extraordinary Gentlemen" the same thing will be disappointed in the response.

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