RIORI Vol 3, Installment 95: Steven Norrington’s “The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen” (2003)



The Players…

Sean Connery, Shane West, Richard Roxburgh, Tony Curran, Peta Wilson, Stuart Townsend, Jason Flemyng and Naseeruddin Shah.


The Story…

Dateline: Europe, 1899. The United Kingdom in the now. The planet in the abstract. The world may be at war any day now. That is if the mysterious and dreaded terrorist known only as “Fantom” and his minions have their way.

It’s time to act. Under Her Majesty’s blessing, special agent “M” is marshaled into assembling a team, a league of heroes—and a few anti-heroes—of unique, exceptional and extraordinary  acumen to quash any notion of global conflict. To stop Fantom at any cost and bring him to justice.

But what to call this disparate, somewhat ragtag band of heroes? Hmm.


The Rant…

So when, when would he have gotten to this one? Rumor had it that is was such a juicy bite, right? Notoriously so.

A good question.

League was too easy, too obvious a target for one. Had to make my bones literally years back to decide what really was a mediocre movie and one that was just misunderstood. Consider that I started this whole mess back in 2013, when Marvel got their foothold in the movie biz, and then Disney (feeling threatened, as always) wanted in on the action. Then DC heroes got to the silver screen, and saving Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy the Distinguished Competition cinema with sketchy-at-best results. Still, with a relic like League already in the can going on 20 years we can at least tip a hat to the effort of we may have never seen Black Panther. Comic book movies are designed and demand to be seen in a big theater with THX, crystal clear pixelation and a wheelbarrow labored with popcorn. Lotsa popcorn. It takes a keen studio to get that kind of stand-and-deliver chutzpah. And even if League capsized back in ’03, give some props. Passive aggressive props, but acknowledgment for a job, well, done.

I was a multiplex guy back then. Lotta pressure. Back in the day I had at least 3 months to score the latest big deal flick at the local cinema. I recall in high school I got a “student discount” if I presented my high school card to the polite, tired girl at the box-office. Back in the early 90s you could get a big popcorn, small drink and precious few smirks from the bitter staff for around 5 bucks with that card. As long as you had that useless ID card outside the high school campus, cinematic wonders would abound. I was there every Friday with my low-life buddies.

Not just Fridays, mind you. Summertime soon arrived. Time to raid the theatre. Me and buds raped and pillaged that place for all its worth. Blockbusters? There. All the cinematic hullabaloo 90s Hollywood throw at us. The original Jurassic Park, Keanu becoming an action star in Speed. Running around with Forrest Gump. Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum thwarting aliens from vaporizing Earth in Independence Day. Feelin’ hakuna matata with Timon and Pumbaa (hey, they can’t all be grown-up movies). My buds and I? We liked ’em big. The movies, you dope (and yeah whatever). That list has some big titles, demanding the big screen, even Gump (recall the Vietnam chapter?). What cinephile doesn’t like splash and dash, cool fight scenes, crazy F/X and lame but well timed jokes. Hey, who doesn’t? And since only scant few comic book movies every graced the multiplex back then, we’d take what we could get for action heroes that five bucks could offer. Hell, back then a flick like League would have blown our minds and perhaps other body parts, too.

Erm, my best buds were all girls. Moving on.

Back to the future: I think it’s safe to say that League was year zero when the comic book action film met the conventional action movie audience. The review in Maxim hinted at that with sarcasm beyond my big yap can claim (and yes, I had a subscription. What do you read while on the john? Hemingway?). But yeah, yeah, yeah. I know what you’re thinking, regardless of that esteemed rag’s opinions. Rather: but blogger dude, what about the original Spider-Man movie? That dropped a year before League and Spidey was a blockbuster!

You’re right. It was. It was a great movie featuring everyone’s friendly, neighborhood arachnid hero. But that’s just it: everyone in Christendom knows who Spider-Man is. He’s Marvel’s biggest hero. Even if you never read his comics America en masse knows who Spider-Man is, so high-profile he be. Spidey’s story was a safe bet for Hollywood, and how right they were. They got big and nearly big name stars. They found the ideal director in quirk-tastic Sam Raimi. And the CGI was polished to a sheen (for 2002 anyway). In hindsight, the movie served as metaphor for the comic book movie dipping a toe in the sketchy waters of Tinsel Town’s grimy pool, and it paid off. It worked, so let’s open the floodgates. More comic movies, with more challenging stories! And more challenging characters even! Characters we can mold in our own image! Characters no one has never even heard of!

Slow down there.

It’s one thing to cull from the Spidey mythos to make an origin pic accessible to Middle America, and quite the other to tackle Alan Moore’s catalog. Herculean balls in fact. What was Fox thinking about besides its wallet?

Not much else. Ask Sean Hannity, if you dare.

And all did not go very well. At least that’s what the dailies said. And Rotten Tomatoes. And Agent 007 personally. Connery kinda retired after this, making League his swansong. Bummer. Was it that bad? I mean, James Bond never failed a mission (unless you include his girlfriend REDACTED at the end of Casino Royale), but this pastiche made Connery say, “I don’t think I’ll ever act again. I have so many wonderful memories, but those days are over.” That’s a direct quote. Sniff.

From what I gathered about Leaguebefore I sat down and watched it, that is—that down to brass tacks it was the first big cinematic turkey of the new century. The movie became saturated with notoriety as nothing but bombast and artifice, even for being an overt (very overt) popcorn flick. We ain’t talking’ Heaven’s Gate territory here. That infamous film took years to recoup its theatrical release losses against its rental and televised earnings. No. League only lost $12 million at box office to break even. That’s half the budget of most movies today.

WTF? What’s with all the crowing? League would never win Best Picture, even if that’s what Norrington’s aim was. That and the numbers do not reflect rental/streaming sales, so there. How come this flick became a high water mark in the early 00s as “don’t try this at home?” From my myopic view, a movie like League would’ve killed back in the nascent CGI days of 90s cinema. My pals and I caught the original Jurassic Park on opening night. Most of the fervor for me, my friends and doubtless the bodies queued up around the block were enticed by the promise of some new-fangled digital dinosaur action. If the adjacent theater was featuring an action movie where an art deco submarine was the set there would have two Sisyphusian (I just made that word up) lines, all with trembling tickets in there hands.

My point? I think I have one: You can’t be everything to everyone at the best time. So much being a busybody will only run you down, and as for moviegoers will disappoint. Taking risks is good, provided you a have a plan in place (and maybe a backup plan also). Creative license can be a good thing, provided you don’t take too many liberties. And a decent story works wonders against way too much digital F/X. I think League got stoned a la Shirley Jackson because the audience wanted more that the aforementioned splash and dash. To claim modern audiences are more sophisticated in their viewings is a canard. This would explain Adam Sandler’s success as a movie star.

No. The average movie joe likes shiny as much as the next crow, but when the vital basis for a good movie (eg: the script) gets mangled—especially an adaptation—it demands boo/hiss. Recall what I said about Moore redacting his credit from any movie project based on his books? Or Connery’s testament? Or even League‘s box office takeaway? Don’t try to con us, Hollyweird.

All around, ouch…


In a universe parallel to ours…

Literary heroes of our past are the real thing in this alternate present. And it will take some of these extraordinary explorers, fighters and scientists to unite and defeat a creeping evil bent on world war.

So what and why us?

On Her Majesty, Queen Victoria’s secret service, it falls to special agent “M” (Roxburgh) to round up the usual suspects and with crossed fingers mold a real team our of these disparate misfits and adherents to rid the planet of the nefarious and mysterious terrorist Fantom and his technically advanced army. So that’s what.

But why us? Because you are the best and brightest and most screwed up needed to protect our way of life, not just for Britain but for the entire planet.

People like you Allan Quatermain (Connery), rough and ready African hunter; agent Tom Sawyer (West), foreign agent from the Colonies; Nemo (Shah), captain of the high tech nuclear submarine, the Nautilus; Dr Henry Jekyll (Flemyng) and his monstrous alter ego Mt Hyde; the immortal Dorian Gray (Townshend); the stealthy Invisible Man (Curran), and Mina Harker (Wilson), bloodsucking vixen.

Does Fantom stand a chance of world domination against a league of such extraordinary heroes?

Perhaps, if they don’t kill each other first…


Back to our world…

Hey. You know how I like to skewer the actors as the first part of a review? In the immortal words of the late George HW Bush, “Not gonna do it.”

I have next to zero complaints with the acting in this movie. For real. No BS. The cast was great. Misused, but great! There was a chemistry, albeit a tad awkward. The cast really got into their roles, channeling the fictional, literary heroes as we might have read them. Chances are the cast did. They were a circus in the best possible way. I really loved West as Sawyer, devil-may-care and freewheeling like his novel analog, as well as Shah as Nemo, regal but not snooty and very sharp (and knows kung fu!).  It was also nice to see even at his advanced age Connery was still up an action role. But again, all misused. A shame.

Misused how? Journeyman director Norrington who had a rep for turning scraps into a viable story did not know what to do with a big budget. Kid in a candy store moment, hungry mouth dripping with gum disease. There’s champing at the bit, and there’s getting in over your head.

For those who don’t know, Norrington helmed the original Blade movie, and did a helluva job. He took a minor league Marvel character and made him a badass, vampire -slaying fool. Even the comics had to take notice as they retconned virtually everything attached their vampire hunter character of the 70s, including the hairstyle. Blade was a surprise hit. Not for the comic book appeal—as I far as I know, there was no such curiosity then in the slick 90s—but for the straightforward, simple, dynamic action flow aided by Wesley Snipes martial arts skills and dry wit. It was kinda the anti-Batman; Blade offing his victims not out of symbolic revenge, but from revenge plain and simple. A nice violent, bloody, kung fu drenched battle between kinda good and kinda evil. Custom made for the 90s crowd like I used to be a member of. It’s still one my go-to movies to watch when I don’t know what I want to watch. It never fails to disappoint.

So kudos for neophyte Norrington back in ’98. You delivered the goods and now the phone won’t quit buzzing, clogged with voicemails from Hollywood. Yer gonna be a hit, kid! Here’s a ludicrous budget. We got Alan Moore on board, as well as 007! We’re going to Africa.

*cue the Toto song. Weezer’s cover or the original, I don’t care*

Okay. Like with the casting I’m not gonna beat Norrington up. Blade was solid; he knew what to do and did it well. He was offered the keys to the kingdom and did his best. Referring back to his sophomore effort, as an early entry into the comic-as-movie device, his reminds me of an actual comic. Not a bad thing. These days if its not as realistic as possible, average comic movies fans quail and mope and return to their basements bedrooms in their parents’ homes.

For real, League has a pretty cool premise. Especially using the tried-and-true “alternate universe” template in S/F. Lotta clay to mold with. Alt-reality is fun, especially once you figure out its alt-reality. Figuring that out? That’s the fun part. The setup reads like that; takes you a few scenes (even beyond the 1899 fact) to get it, and then go along with the ride. It’s rather fun to watch the team form out, all these varied, disparate characters. Sure, been done before, but these goofs are so incongruent you have to ask yourself how can their mission succeed with all these mavericks? A promising start, right?

And also a portent: this was the first (and only) Alan Moore adaptation that credits him. After the dailies for League I can only guess why he pulled his name from the credits for his later cinematic projects. Dum dum dummm.

Anywho…

So this project was cursed. I could lay the fault at Norrington’s feet, but that wouldn’t be fair. Kid in a candy store, remember? What would you do with the legendary Connery et al with all those millions? Right. IHOP. Then filming, with this terribly amusing, eclectic cast that hit almost all the marks. Maybe all the storyboard targets spun too fast for Norrington, because his crew missed a crucial target: editing. Now allow me to crawl up mine own arse.

Hold on. Okay. Let’s put it this way: Any of you out there ever saw the first Star Trek movie? Better yet, the “Director’s Cut?” There was a possibly cool flick in dire need of an editor (perhaps an acting coach also but never mind). Even if you’re not a Trekkie like I am, there are quite a few parallel brain farts in directing that Norrington inadvertently followed after the esteemed Robert Wise took the helm of the big screen Enterprise. Indulge me, will you? Thanks.

It’s all about motion. Stories hinge on that. Pacing. Remember her, my precious cinema bitch? Some key writers in the American literary canon were and are adept at that. A few examples (of course personal)? Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, Charles Bukowski’s Ham On Rye, Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy and Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. Say what needs to be said with economy and nothing further. Those books zoom past your eyeballs, and surprise you when you’ve finished. A lot of good movies work that way, too. League was not such a movie.

Back to the Star Trek: TMP analog. There’s an early scene where Scotty and Kirk are taking a shuttle to the refitted Enterprise. Its transporters are down, but that’s a semi-minor plot point. It was more of an excuse to declare lo and behold there’s the starship Enterprise on the big screen. Big as life! For about ten minutes. It took about ten minutes to complete this scene, with way too much time spent on the sexy ILM model giving fan service and Kirk and Scott arriving at the damned vessel. You can even see when the editors had to stretch it and for no reason. It got to yawn.

What was worse was this: on Star Trek: TOS the Enterprise was goin’ places. Due to the budget, jetting off to another crisis zone was implied with stock footage behind a cheap wall of stars that the Enterprise was on its way. Not unlike any other Trek TV/movie series. There are only two TOS episodes that required actual motion of the crew to move the plot along. Balance Of Terror, the best sci-fi submarine drama ever made, and The Ultimate Computer surrounding events of war games go awry. The rest of the other 78 eps? We be going places via your mind. Take the sugarcube. Let your imagination fill in the gaps using so much bread crumbs.

One more paragraph then we’re done. TMP was stagnant. Mostly because the new fangled Enterprise didn’t go anywhere. The warp drive was f*cked up until Spock fixed it, and when the Enterprise reached her quarry, they all got stuck again. Mired in the gullet of a biomech alien for the next two acts. The only time we got to see the new Enterprise zip off into the outer rims was within the last five minutes of the movie! And Kirk behaving like a dickhead for 2 and half hours! I am entitled to more popcorn, dammit.

Done. You get it. Now here’s me pulling the same punches with League:

The Nautilus crawling up the Venetian canals is a prime example. Long talks that serve no purpose is another. Too much exposition. Too much showing off the latest CGI chrome. Too many explosions paired against too much untrimmed fat. Too much tell, too little show. That is not how stories are told. It’s a crime. Show don’t tell like the Rush tune warned. You may have the coolest cast on hand, the best F/X money can buy, a very simple good vs evil plot on hand also. But to deliver a film—action sci-fi comic book whatsit or whatever—that wastes the audiences’ time? The aforementioned goes down the crapper. That’s what League got bogged down with. Too much down time. I understand being a comic geek that Moore’s work demands patience to digest everything. We have only two hours here; let’s point the grout with a lot of exposition…and slow…things…dooowwwnnn. Flipping such downside to the upside, though: it invites curiosity. Kinda like reading the fortune after you smashed and ate the cookie: what fun! Now what?

Act two. I think I now understand why League took such a drubbing at the box office: too much tell and not enough show. The lumbering and rather aimless plot only cradles action for action’s sake. Kinda like how the song-and-dance scenes in Mary Poppins Returns only bookend another rather aimless plot (but those scenes were awesome). Even if the most derivative and/or lame story has to follow a straight line. Even non linear stories (like Aronofsky’s The Fountain or Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction) have a thread to follow. Unless it’s an anthology film, plots should not wander. Break that rule and the audience’s attention will wander. Like I did with League. By act two I could not get what was going on. Blame lies in again too much exposition and wasted dialogue at that. I don’t care about our characters’ back story the third time around. Or describing things we can see on the screen. Or open monologue to explain what’s going on/what’s next. Where’s the mystery? Where’s the surprise? Where’s the tension and where is my Diet Coke? We need an editor.

*facepalm*

Okay. Now what?

This. The tech angle. The usual third act. All action films use backdrops as extras. Saharan dunes don’t need craft services. Nowadays CGI is paramount to creating a viable action film. Back in the Stone Age of ’03 we still had to go on location to set the pace. And by the way League’s sets are impressive. You could with your keen eye back then separate the pixels from the actual. The sets are nice, very nice. Grey’s library should’ve invited an Oscar nod. Too bad the intelligentsia with the bankroll doesn’t read.

Bitter? Nah.

Well, yeah, after taking in League. It helped to digest the mildly cartoony CGI by reminding myself League was cut in 2003. Cutting edge then, and held up pretty well. This was thanks mostly to Norrington’s tasteful hand at employing CGI F/X for emphasis, not run riot like the Star Wars prequels. Here’s a few examples I found very cool: the Invisible Man’s entry is stunning, heck, CGI or no and that literally painted on face was alien enough to drive the point home how warped he became. A gentle mad scientist and a warning to science. That was a gold star.

Dr Jekyll “hulking out” into Mr Hyde was kinda frightening. As it should be! I read the book. I saw John Malkovich get all twisted in Mary Reilly. The book was chilling. Malkovich’s performance was demented. Curran’s Hyde was…a monster, enhanced by tightly wound CGI metamorphosis. Curran behaving like a junkie, his serum calling to him, alluding to not knowing what might happen if he “Hydes out” again. That plot point I liked.

One more thing, though not related to F/X but relevant to our dramatic personae.

[Fair warning: the following contains fanboyism. You have been warned.]

The varied cast paints a picture, encapsulating the up-and-comers against an action film icon: 007 himself, Sean Connery. I love Connery. He’s probably my fave actor. Probably because he’s always be able to play tough but really is witty and a rapscallion. Towards his end of his turn as James Bond—he was getting bored of the role and didn’t want to get typecast—he decided to turn is his license to kill (what sane person would do that?) to look towards dramatic and comedic roles. Connery being protean only returned to an action role (007 no less) for Diamonds Are Forever because he and the studio disliked George Lazanby’s take as James Bond and he felt he had to mop up (the character and doubtless his bankroll).

Sean hung up proper Bond (Never Say Never Again doesn’t count. Even by Connery) in 1971 with Diamonds. Precious few action roles followed since, some good (The Untouchables, sadly his only Oscar), some notable (Outland), some weird (Zardoz), some silly (Entrapment), some decent (The Hunt For Red October), some culty (Highlander) and some poking fun at him (Indiana Jones And The Last Crudsade). That last nod is what brings us back to League. There were quite a few allusions—from Connery himself, not Quatermain—that he’s getting too old for this sh*t. I found that to be a passive but kind farewell to the spotlight, action or no. I’d like to think so. Connery came full circle and this was his last (live action) movie. He’s retired now, Sir Thomas. Good idea to bow out after this pastiche, but thanks for the ride. No shocker he was the tentpole for League.

Whew. Sorry.

So what have we learned? Well, I tend to ramble. That and a cool script executed with poor efficiency makes for a slog of an action film. Smart use of period CGI can make a difference. Alan Moore never lent his name to credits for movie adapts of his comics. Don’t ramble. League, though mildly entertaining as well as frustrating, was still oddly humorous, barely. It was mostly entertaining, though I had to change contacts after squinting down a cohesive plot. League was, overall, mostly interesting but wobbly on the entertaining angle. I guess in some way it was a vital literary history lesson.

That’s a cheap shot, I know. Recall my chosen myopia about 2003 CGI? I gave it a pass, and eventually acceptance. But the plot and actors? Spent. Blah. Damn. A shame. The Clash’s triple album Sandinista! reminds me of League. The album ran over 2 hrs, 30 mins. 28 songs. Only a fraction of them would be better spent on a tighter album. League might have scored better under the two hour mark. Less can always be more.

Ignoring old skool CGI.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A very mild rent it. Mentally trim the fat and there’s a fine actioner. Think too much about what you’re watching and hello aneurism. A few beers help. Like maybe nine. Go Cubs! (burp)


Stray Observations…

  • “Regale me.”
  • BTW, it’s Quatermain, not Quartermain. I’ve made the same mistake, too.
  • “Call me Ishmael, please.”
  • Impressive beard. Puts most Millennials to shame. Men included.
  • “If you don’t do it with one bullet, don’t do it at all.” Connery summing up the CV of every hitman.
  • Are Fantom’s goons proto-Nazis?
  • “I’m not much of a drinker.” Ha ha.
  • I don’t think the Venetian canals are that deep.
  • “He’s stolen us, and we let him.” That is a good line.
  • REDACTED as traitor? Did not see that coming. Really.
  • “We’ll be at this all day.” I wish.
  • Wasn’t that how Moriarty met his end in the last Sherlock story? Fall from a frozen cliff? Hmm.
  • “Then the game is on.”

Next Installment…

Topher Grace would love to ask Teresa Palmer, “Take Me Home Tonight.” But Anna Faris is standing next to him yakking so forget that.


 

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