The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)

Cynthia Fuchs

Allan Quartermain is complex, to be sure, resenting imperialism even as he embodies it.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Director: Stephen Norrington
Cast: Sean Connery, Shane West, Naseeruddin Shah, Peta Wilson, Tony Curran, Stuart Townsend, Jason Flemyng
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: 20th Century Fox
First date: 2003
US DVD Release Date: 2003-12-16
Tomorrow's where I live and breathe.
-- Tom Sawyer (Shane West), The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, deleted scene

"Steve Norrington had a contractual obligation to deliver a PG-13, so that we could have a big summer blockbuster. And therefore," says producer Don Murphy at the beginning of the commentary track for The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, "a lot of the intense violence was toned back. And originally, here, you had this guy being run over, and you saw a little more than just that hat. But it was decided that there was no way you'd get a PG-13 if you started out the film with extras' heads exploding."

This observation (which comes up again in other forms in other commentaries on Fox's DVD, as for instance, when a character is run through with a sword, and Murphy notes, "See, right there, you're supposed to get some blood on the back of his jacket. But in order to get our rating, we were told to take it out") is instructive. For one thing, it sets up "sides." On the first is Murphy (who produced From Hell, also adapted from an Alan Moore graphic novel) and Norrington, with a flair for "intense violence" previously demonstrated in Blade. On the other is Fox, angling for summer season profits. Indeed, the tension might explain some of XLG's schizzy sense and style.

The bulk of the DVD's commentary tracks are assembled by the increasingly popular technique where separate recordings are spliced together (this technique, of course, means no one is talking to anyone else, less chance of giggling and group reminiscing). One includes producers Murphy and Trevor Albert, along with actors Shane West, Jason Flemyng, and Tony Curran (the last two actors are together, and they like very much to imitate Connery's brogue, in their recollections of on-set antics); and another features costume, makeup, and visual effects crewmembers. This last grouping is particular useful, given the film's dependence on effects and appearance. The inclusion of 12 deleted scenes, with titles like "Inside the Nemomobile," "Dinner Aboard the Nautilus," Flooding the Engine," and "Mia Warms Up," is perhaps most interesting for their exposure of unfinished green-screen work.

The film, adapted from Moore and Kevin O' Neill's graphic novel series by comic book writer James Robinson, opens in 1899, as "a new age dawns." A rolling title reveals that the "great nations of Europe" are engaged in an "uneasy peace." As the Industrial Age climaxes (displayed here in terrifically clangy production design by Carol Spier), 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. As newspaper headlines telegraph mounting tensions, the Fantom actually has another goal in mind, befitting of his ambitious villainy: world domination.

The Brits send an emissary to Kenya, where the great Allan Quartermain (Sean Connery) is "hiding out." (In the featurette, "Assembling the League," Murphy recalls Connery joking that he was offered The Matrix and he didn't understand it so he turned it down, and he was offered The Lord of the Rings but didn't understand it, so he turned it down, and so he decided that though he didn't understand The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, he took it anyway. His leap of faith was good for LXG, though the film still suffers from lack of careful thinking through of its possibilities.)

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 the titular League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, plus a woman.

Allan is complex, to be sure, resenting imperialism even as he embodies it. Similarly, the film built around him is exasperatingly oblivious to its own love of heroic Victorian whiteness. Called to service by the wily rich guy M (Richard Roxburgh), the League consists of Mina, ingenious Indian scientist Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah); Mina Harker (Peta Wilson), a vampire who inexplicably has no trouble with mirrors or daylight; the Invisible Man, here named Skinner due to copyright issues (Curran); the singularly selfish Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend); Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde (Flemyng), whose CGI effects look rather like Hulk's (including similarly stretching trousers and shredding shirt); Flemyng makes his own comparison in his commentary: "You don't have to be green to be mean!" and again, "Eric Bana, when he does change, is Shrek!" Though, Flemyng adds, "He was blooming good in Chopper. He's a brilliant actor."

Added to the novel's roster by Fox fiat is Tom Sawyer (Shane West), now a Secret Service Agent with an affection for tricked out Winchesters. Murphy laconically addresses comic readers' outcry concerning the insertion of tom Sawyer into the otherwise all-Brit cast of characters: "The studio wanted an American, a young one at that. Robinson suggested Tom Sawyer, and personally, I think it's a great idea." following some listing of dates for Tom Sawyer book publications (namely, Tom Sawyer, Detective, in 1897), to justify his age as a secret agent in 1899, Murphy puts the debate to rest (at least until he brings it up again during the commentary track): "And it's only a fantasy movie anyway, guys."

The technology apparently also vexed viewers, as Murphy tells it: "Some of the purists again wanted to know [he imitates in falsetto], 'How come there's a car? It's 1900!' And I'm like, 'Okay, but a nuclear powered submarine doesn't bother you! The good news for me... is that the co-creator of the comic, Kevin O'Neill, came down to the set, he drove the car and thought it was like the greatest thing he'd ever seen." (Here, West pipes in, on his separate track, "Car looks great. Bitch to drive.")

At the same time, the out-of-synch tech has a background; again, Murphy explains, that it is inspired in part by steampunk, which he describes as "the idea that in a time when it couldn't possibly exist, all this kind of advanced technology exists, based on totally made up science, is a convention of the steampunk genre. For some reason, Fox hated the idea that there were all these slaves working for M, that all these people were enslaved, and the League comes and saves them. So you overtly see them save the families of the scientists, but the whole things that he's using all these slaves to do all this stuff is totally downplayed."

Given this anxiety about slavery, it's something of a victory that the filmmakers were able to make Nemo Indian, as he was in the novel, but not in the James Mason movie. Apparently, in a 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 famously way-ahead-of-its-time submarine Nautilus, and assembled a stash of weapons and a loyal turbaned crew. 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 save Britain.

Similarly reduced in motivation and backstory, 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 cutely turned on, indicating his youthful proclivity for violence, or maybe his openness to a girl with fangs.

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 properly, that is, taking careful aim and needing only one shot. 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 update or challenge.

While most of the characters are left to one dimension, 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."

Feeling drunk with power, Hyde also feels 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, 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 hissy conversation with that "other" self. For the effectively creepy portholes sequence (Jekyll runs by a series of them and Hyde appears in them sequentially, taunting), visual effects supervisor John Sullivan notes that to show the "angst and the anger... we took it into more of the funhouse distortion mirrors to give it more dramatic content and try and drive the character more."

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 "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.

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