Since its initial release thirteen years ago, The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen has been a film with a less than stellar reputation. Receiving mixed to negative reviews, it has been seen as a poor adaptation of Alan Moore's graphic novel as well as a disappointing final cinema appearance of Sean Connery. Yet looking at the film both then and now would suggest that there's more to it than meets the eye and that it might, in fact, be better than its reputation may suggest.
Let's be honest up front though: The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a film with issues to be sure. If you've read the original graphic novel or have simply flipped through its pages at your local bookstore or public library (as I have), you'll likely spot pretty quickly that the film bares only the faintest resemblance to the source material. Many of the characters are present but many of the incidents portrayed in the film most certainly are not. Quite a few (including Tom Sawyer) are simply added to to the film to bring either more literary references or for marketing reasons (which Sawyer most certainly was), meaning that if you're going into this expecting a faithful adaptation of Moore's graphic novel, you're in for a disappointment.
The film has other issues as well. The quality of the special effects are variable, ranging from excellent (in the case of invisible man Rodney Skinner or the Jekyll/Hyde transformations) to middling (which is essentially anywhere CGI is used). Indeed the CGI used in the film looks iffy in places even by 2003 standards with it being very obvious when a CGI version of Hyde is appearing versus a more convincing prosthetic.
Perhaps nothing though has come in for more criticism than the script. The late critic Robert Ebert cited the script for featuring "incomprehensible action, idiotic dialogue, inexplicable motivations, causes without effects, effects without causes, and general lunacy." He's not wrong in some places with the plot for the first half or so suffering from exactly that (especially towards the middle of the film as revelations pile up and one wonders why characters have done certain things). It's also possible that some of the “idiotic dialogue” may refer to some of the comic relief lines which often feel like they could have come out of a Bond film (perhaps appropriately in the circumstance). It's not a perfect script by any means but I think Ebert did it something of a disservice.
The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen film is an action film. Plain and simple, that's what it is. It's interesting to watch it now with the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe because really this is The Avengers in Victorian times. It's a film about a team of extraordinary individuals being brought together to fight a larger threat, the friction between them, betrayals, romances and plenty of action. The film even turns Jekyll/Hyde into Bruce Banner/The Hulk which is an iffy thing to do but it works at times. Speaking as someone who has read most of the original books featuring the characters, I find it quite fun to see them put together and used like this even if they are almost unrecognizable at times (though the film deserves some kudos for actually making Captain Nemo Indian, something that hasn't been done very much at all). It's a Victorian superhero movie and quite an effective one.
The action sequences, while chaotic at times, are quite effective. The various fist-fights are all well staged though they do border on believability at times (though not for the reason you might think as Connery holds up incredibly well). The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen also features a range of other action set-pieces including chases through Paris and Venice and a running series of sequences towards the end. In a way it's a shame that the plot isn't stronger to show off the action sequences better as the various sequences have to effectively hold up the poor structure of the film.
The film's sets and costumes are also quite effective. Move past the sometimes iffy CGI used to represent them in larger scale shots and look at the physical objects and things like the Nautlius and you'll discover that they look quite good (as does Nemo's automobile used in one of the aforementioned action sequences). The set design and costumes all bring not so much the proper Victorian aesthetic but what can be termed as steampunk. It's a slightly more high-tech version of that era but one that is visually appealing and which makes some of the film's events a bit more plausible. From a steampunk point of view, The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a showcase for what the genre can do on the cinema screen despite the issues with the script.
Of course there's the performances as well. The role of Allan Quatermain would be Connery's last, but all things considered he could have done far worse as here is a man in his seventies holding his own with actors a fraction of his age. Connery's presence (both literally and figuratively) anchors the film nicely and he not only gets to show off his action chops but play both a team leader and a father figure as well. It's also Connery's skill for throwing away one-liners than makes some of the film's comedic lines work well. What is on showcase here might not so much be Connery the actor but Connery the action star in his last hurrah.
The rest of the cast does pretty well given the script they're handed. Tony Curran's Rodney Skinner probably comes off the best out of the cast, playing up the comedy of the invisible man role and becoming a scene-stealer in the process. Peta Wilson's Mina Harker is the only major female role in the film and she's both a fine foil for Connery's Quartermain as well as an effective presence in the film. Shane West makes for an effective Dorian Gray, playing up the cockiness and amoral elements of Oscar Wilde's most famous character. Both Naseeruddin Shah as Captain Nemo and Jason Flemyng as Jekyll/Hyde are underused, though the film touches upon interesting elements of each character that never quite get explored in full (indeed there's a scene between them that seems to be missing a large chunk out of it). Rounding out the League is the aforementioned Tom Sawyer played by Shane West who is mentored by Connery's Quatermain and is actually an interesting addition as the youngest and perhaps most reckless member of the League. The team then is quite well assembled, all things considered, with Richard Roxburgh rounding off the cast in an interesting role that is ill-written at times but that he does quite well with.
As a film then, The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen isn't a masterpiece. It has issues with its script and production values to be sure, but it is far from the disastrous film its reputation suggests (indeed it actually made money at the box-office). It's a fun steampunk action movie that sees an icon in one last hurrah playing the kind of role he is best known for. As that kind of film, it's an utter joy to watch and one that's a great way of passing a rainy afternoon. So give it a go and enjoy it for what it is.
Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.