It’s 1899, reads an opening title, and the “great nations of Europe” are engaged in an “uneasy peace.” As the Industrial Age climaxes (displayed here in clangy production design by Carol Spier), an ambitious villain self-named the Fantom — with a tank and a scary metal mask — tries to rile the continent to world war by attacking German and British financial institutions (the WTC connection may be a long shot). As national newspaper headlines telegraph mounting tensions, the Fantom has another plan in mind, dastardly of course, for something approximating world domination.
Desperate, the Brits send an emissary to Kenya, where the great Allan Quartermain (Sean Connery) is “hiding out.” Mourning the death of a son and essentially retired to the Britania Club, he and other white “adventurers” are served by black waiters and drivers. Reluctant at first (“You’re probably too young to remember,” he tells the messenger, “but the Empire is always in some kind of peril”), Allan changes his mind when this oasis is also attacked by a horde of anonymous, bulletproof-vested thugs with automatic weapons and bombs. And so he sets off to London to meet his team, the titular League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Allan’s initial resistance to aid this imperial self-preservation project seems particularly timely, given the devastation wreaked by current world-dominating forces (say, the U.S. and Britain). That he is enticed to fight in order to save his beloved “Africa,” as the messenger puts it, is equally timely, given the rationales supporting such devastation. And yet, for a movie so apparently attentive to the bedevilments of imperialism, LXG is exasperatingly oblivious to its own love of heroic Victorian whiteness.
This morass of ideas only gets more scrambled when the team is introduced. Based on Alan Moore and Kevin O’ Neill’s graphic novel series, directed by Stephen (Blade) Norrington, scripted by comic book writer James Robinson, this muddled and blustery film uses the mysterious imperialist M (Richard Roxburgh, the nasty Duke in Moulin Rouge) to bring together its crew. This consists of the ingenious scientist Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah); Mina Harker (Peta Wilson), a vampire who inexplicably has no trouble with mirrors or daylight and who, in the source text if not here, is the group’s leader; the Invisible Man, here named Skinner due to copyright issues (Tony Curran); the singularly selfish Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend); the definitively schizzy Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde (Jason Flemyng), whose CGI effects look rather like Hulk’s (including access to the same magically stretching trousers); and, added to the novel’s roster, apparently for U.S. consumption, Tom Sawyer (Shane West), now a Secret Service Agent (!) with an affection for tricked out Winchesters.
In some previous incarnation, Nemo was a truly complicated character (this according to the film’s press notes), anti-British Empire and working, by piracy, to restore his own land, India, to independence. To this end, he has created the famous submarine Nautilus, and assembled a stash of weapons and a loyal crew of be-turbaned men. The contraptions and troops are visible on screen, but the backstory is mentioned only in passing, as Nemo (an ostensible worshipper of Kali, the goddess of death, as noted, presumably ironically, by the undead Mina) is offered amnesty for his crimes. And with that, he appears fully willing to throw down with whoever to save Britain.
Similarly reduced to brief minutes and superficial simplicity, Mina observes that she has no need of her fellow Leaguers’ gentlemanly protection, just before she ravages the neck of a thug who’s grabbed her up with a knife to her throat. Following the incident, as she daintily readjusts her makeup and cleans the blood and bits of skin from her lips, Tom is quite cutely turned on, indicating his youthful proclivity for violence, or maybe his openness to a girl with sand (or fangs, anyway).
Aside from exhibiting such boyish romancing charms, Tom also serves as Allan’s surrogate son, in need of shooting lessons, since he shoots “like an American,” firing two pistols fast and furiously in hopes of hitting a target, rather than doing it Allan’s way, taking careful aim and needing only one shot. (Can you guess whether he’ll learn by the end of the movie?) This pairing is especially grating, not only for the unsubtle father-son business, but also for its rehearsal of national identities: the sage Englishman passes on his authoritative mantle to the brash young Yank. It’s a grim and familiar story that the movie doesn’t bother to update or challenge.
In fact, LXG doesn’t do much of anything that’s new, despite its compelling foundation (drawn from the graphic novel series), that is, drawing together fabulous characters with very different self-interests and means of expression. While some of these lead to obvious ends (Dorian’s portrait must make an appearance, and Tom’s aw-shucksish demeanor — where’s Jim when you need him? — becomes irksome nearly immediately), the film’s version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde is appropriately outrageous and vexing.
As a dire emblem of the costs of decorum and an irrepressible desire for (rash, amoral, vicious) freedom, Jekyll/Hyde resonates today in particular ways. As Stevenson’s Jekyll describes the moment of transformation, it is enticing: “I felt younger, lighter, happier in body; within I was conscious of a heady recklessness, a current of disordered sensual images running like a mill-race in my fancy, a solution of the bonds of obligation, an unknown but not an innocent freedom of the soul. I knew myself, at the first breath of this new life, to be more wicked, tenfold more wicked, sold a slave to my original evil; and the thought, in that moment, braced and delighted me like wine.”
So yes, he feels drunk with power and liberation, and he feels a bit guilty about not feeling guilty. The “original evil” has to do with a conventional overstepping of social propriety and conventional moral bounds, but it’s also about an unnerving zap of self-recognition: Jekyll is pop-eyed and tremulous, Hyde is ugly, huge, and darkly veiny (like Black Willow, only much bulkier), and each sees himself in the other. Indeed, the film illustrates the transformation in jazzy ruptured shots and flashes to white; whenever one fully inhabits the frame, he sees himself reflected (in mirrors or portholes) as the other, then feels compelled to engage in erratic and hissy conversation with that “other” self.
At once rudimentary and strangely incisive, such imagery underlines the dilemmas facing the other extraordinary gentlemen (and in neither incarnation is Jekyll or Hyde a “gentleman” per se) — their ostensible opposition to the empire even as they rally to preserve it. If Hyde signifies its monstrous brute force and Jekyll its efforts to keep up a genteel front, together they represent its inevitable conflicts, the split between “individual rights” and corporate/state governance.
LXG is long on seductions and betrayals, as well as frequently incoherent crowd shots, poorly rendered urban demolitions, and befuddling action sequences, wherein it becomes hard to tell who’s who or why you would care. Still, its carelessness with its ostensible subject matter — the relation of its protagonists to the heartless state — is most troubling and most visible at film’s end. As Allan comes full circle to his “beloved Africa,” his white comrades retreat from the frame and leave a wordless native witch doctor to his work. This, it seems, is the Most Magical Negro, willing, after all, to assist the white interloper in his efforts. And so it seems that some myths remain undebunked.