Sunday, April 20, 2014

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen


I know my fans are all anxious to find out the outcome of my celebrity gubernatorial candidate 'Tap Off' the other evening. Despite the star studded entertainment and audience, we didn't get quite as much press as we hoped - apparently we were up against the MTV music awards and my wholesome entertainment just couldn't compete with Madonna's salacious open mouthed kisses. I wish I had known in advance. I could have kissed Arianna Huffington, Gary Coleman and Gallagher while doing a time step and without missing a beat.

I had to rearrange the program at the last minute. Arnold Schwarzenegger declined to show up and Cruz Bustamante insisted that he was enough of a celebrity to participate. I was a bit unsure, but the sight of Mr. Bustamante in tap shoes doing the Mexican hat dance while expounding on deficit reduction was too much to pass up. He came in second on the applause-o-meter, outdone only by yours truly. His gray pinstripe suit just couldn't compete with the black and white confection with the fringe that Bob Mackie whipped up for my number - and I also had the miniature Golden Gate Bridge that flew in and on which I tapped up and down the cables. There was only one real casualty during the night. Angelyne's hair got caught in the door of her pink corvette as she executed some sort of bizarre back flip into the driver's seat and was revealed to be a rather shoddy wig. She got some sympathy applause and I hustled her backstage to fit her for a 'Maine's Mane' from House O'Hair wigs - guaranteed to stay on with its permabond fasteners.

It took several days for me to come down from the high of winning the competition. Madame Rose, my publicist, said that my poll numbers went up significantly in the neighborhoods that carried the public access channel on which we had a live simulcast. Now, I'm strategizing together with my team on how to undercut Arnold Schwarzenegger and become the celebrity candidate to beat. As team building has become my world, I decided a film that featured a team of extraordinary types might be in order. It wasn't long before I and Tommy, my Jungian and physical therapist, were on our way down to the local Cineplex for a matinee showing of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Sean Connery's new film of nineteenth century daring do.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is based on a graphic novel (a euphemism for comic book) by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neal whose Jack the Ripper opus of the same type had become the basis for the interesting Johnny Depp film, From Hell. I had hoped that this film might be as interesting a take on the Victorian world as that had been. I was to be disappointed. While Moore and O'Neal are known for filling their novels with wry socio-political commentary, anything resembling wit or acerbic observation was removed in order to make room for additional explosions or unnecessary chase sequences.

The concept for the story is ingenious. In an alternate universe, the heroes and villains of the great adventure novels of the late 19th century are real people. In 1899, the British government, in the person of M (Richard Roxburgh in a part that tips its hat to James Bond), recruits a number of them to work together as a secret society in order to chase down the Phantom (who seems to have escaped from Gaston Leroux, even though The Phantom of the Opera wasn't written until 1911), a mysterious and evil arms merchant. Leading the gang is an aging, but still agile Alan Quartermain (Sean Connery) from the novels of H. Rider Haggard. Rounding out the crew are Jules Verne's Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah), H. G. Wells' The Invisible Man (Tony Curran), Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend), Robert Louis Stevenson's Jekyll/Hyde (Jason Flemyng), Bram Stoker's Mina Harker (Peta Wilson) from Dracula and in an unnecessary and condescending nod to the American teen audience, Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer (Shane West).

The plot has our plucky gang, each using their own unique talents, tracking the Phantom to Venice during Carnivale, destroying large quantities of the city, surviving an attempted sabotage of Nemo's submarine, the Nautilus, and ending up in the frozen wastes of Siberia where there's a showdown in an evil factory that would make Blofeld proud. The structure is very like a Bond film, made even more apparent by the casting of Connery, but with a lot of oddball assistants rather than the usual good/bad and bad/good girls. There's exotic locations, evil henchmen, exploding villain's lairs and steam punk nineteenth century takes on nifty gadgets. The actual mechanics of the plot are pretty elementary and need not be discussed here as it's just a skeleton on which to hang action scenes.

This is the chief problem with the film. By concentrating on action movie clichés, it becomes like a hundred other films we've all seen before. The trappings may have a veneer of Victoriana, but it's trite and, to make things worse, cheaply made. The films budget obviously went to secure Connery's salary and for pyrotechnics. Pretty much everything else on the screen is shoddy. The 19th century cityscapes are murky and unappealing and the miniatures and mattes used to set mood and location would make Roger Corman blush with their inadequacy. A collapsing St. Mark's square in Venice, for instance, looks like the falling of a sooty marzipan soufflé. The insistence of the producers on making the film action pabulum takes it away from the source of its greatest strengths, its characters.

There is good in the film. When the bombs stop exploding long enough for us to meet and get to know our literary heroes and heroine, there's some fun character development and interaction. The rather sexy seduction scenes between the vampiric Mina Harker and Dorian Gray are as fun and adult as any love scenes placed before us this summer. The secondary characters may not be played by stars, but they're played by actors who know how to make the most of their few moments. If the film had trusted its concept and spent more time with them and used them to better advantage, how much better it could have been. The film does get some things right. It allows Captain Nemo his original Indian heritage and the Nautilus is a wonderland of mother-of-pearl Mogul architecture that contrasts nicely with the dreary cityscapes. Dr. Jekyll is a lot of fun, even if Mr. Hyde looks like the spawn of the Incredible Hulk and a Pink Pearl pencil eraser. The only secondary character that seems extraneous is Tom Sawyer. He doesn't fit in this world of turn of the century Europe, belonging to mid nineteenth century America (and Twain's character would hardly have grown up to be a secret service type.) Shane West is there strictly for heart throb reasons. Of course, the original novel is from 1876 and looks back at a time some twenty years in the past. This would make Sawyer sixty something in 1899 but that fact is conveniently forgotten.

I can't recommend the film to anyone but diehard Connery fans. He presents another laconic hero in his patented style and remain elegant and attractive, even in his seventies. For those interested in the literary characters, read the original novels or search out the graphic novel on which this was based. The film is best left for a dreary Saturday afternoon when there's nothing on HBO2.

Exploding colonial hotel. Exploding German dirigibles. Exploding submarine. Exploding Venice. Exploding arms factory. Naked man in snow. Bat swarm. Magical portrait. Gratuitous Murders in the Rue Morgue reference. Gratuitous Moby Dick reference. Gratuitous War of the Worlds reference. 

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