The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Fabulous Films
Review written by and copyright: Charlie & Tex (29th July 2019).
The Film

What changes the last 16 years have brought. We live in an era where super-powered heroes from print both rubbing shoulders and fighting evil together on the big screen are so common that it raises few eyebrows, with many cineasts citing such films as end-of-days for filmmaking. Indeed, Fabulous Films releasing The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen exactly between the final couple of Avengers movies was a stroke of genius, having the very first venture to gather heroes together be present for the very end.

The year is 1898: London - an malevolent armoured vehicle breaks in the Bank of England, killing police officers and obliterating anything that stands in it’s way. At the very same time, a factory in Germany is infiltrated and the prototypes of a devastating new airborne weapon are destroyed. The British Empire is directly threatened and a mysterious foe calling himself “The Fantom”, whom seems hell-bent on plunging the major countries of the Earth into a World War, and some of the most famous literary characters of the Victorian era are called upon to save civilisation.

Stepping in (with varying degrees of reluctance) are Allan Quartermain. Legendary adventurer. Dr Henry Jekyll & his infamous alter-ego Mr Hyde, an Invisible Man, former bride of Dracula Mina Harker, fearless sea-farer Captain Nemo and immortal dandy Dorian Grey. Recruited by the officious and enigmatic “M”, they are charged with finding the culprit and restoring order to the four corners of the world.

The comic book world of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill collides with the might of the Hollywood motion picture industry and the results were not unlike a car-crash between a van loaded with fireworks and a circus car filled with brightly-costumed midgets - bizarre, but strangely compelling. It certainly wasn’t going to be an easy task transferring what was considered by many to be an almost unfilmable graphic novel into something that would be embraced by a mainstream cinema audience. Indeed, many have tried and failed whilst attempting this sort of thing, with David Lynch’s attempt at doing justice to Frank Herbert’s epic novel Dune instantly springing to mind. In spite of all of the adversities during the movie, the flooding of Prague, the much-publicised bust-ups between star Sean Connery and director Stephen Norrington, an enjoyable - if flawed - movie was eventually delivered.

The premise of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a fascinating one, but many compromises have been made during the transition from graphic novel to screen. It was obvious that Fox were not able to pick up the rights to use the original Invisible Man, Hawley Griffin, leaving them to create Cockney pickpocket Rodney Skinner, a small-time thief whom supposedly stole the secret formula of invisibility from Griffin in order to further his career of petty larceny. It works up to a point, with Skinner providing much of the humour, but it is a real pity that this had to happen, as Griffin was one of the most interesting characters in the League, with his exploits in the works of O’Neill & Moore being far too much for Middle America to take and would have pushed the rating up beyond the commercially desirable PG-13. How so? Well given that Griffin is behind a spate of young girls having “immaculate conceptions” at a reform school or that he has a habit of brutally murdering policemen, among other things. The less mentioned about this rather…brutal…fate in the comic-books is probably not mentioned in polite company, but it might have been nice for the Invisible Man to have been kissed first...



There has been much negativity about the quality of the visual effects work in the movie - it is true that some of the cityscapes are not particularly convincing - the turn of the (20th) century Venice is particularly questionable, but there is much that works well in presenting the more fantastical elements of the story, such as the first appearance of the Nautilus, which rises spectacularly from beneath the still waters of a supposedly calm dock, looming large in front of our heroes. It is worth pointing out that The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen was never really an “A” picture for Fox - not that we are being in any way derogatory to the movie, but we just mean that it was not one of their “tent pole” movies - it was shot in Prague on a budget that was a good $20m less than the average blockbuster (incidentally another of Moore & O’Neill’s creations, From Hell, was also filmed in Prague). The fact that to the amazement of the producers that Sean Connery actually agreed to be in it possibly elevated the expectations of the general public, but it is a testament to those behind the movie that such a sweeping period film was produced with the budget that was allocated.

In spite of some of the drastic changes in the story and selection of characters, when they get them right, they really are bang-on. Captain Nemo is perfect, with his appearance and characterisation is straight out of the graphic novel, right down to the costume and facial hair. The inclusion of Dorian Gray, the eponymous character from the writings of Oscar Wilde - everything about the character is just so right, from his dandy-like attire to his foppish demeanour - this is one case where the movie of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen got something absolutely right, a masterstroke worthy of O’Neill & Moore themselves, as it adds another dimension to what was a movie filled with compromises.

In the same vein, the cast is also something of a mixed bag - Connery always does well as Connery, but he really wasn’t the right choice for Alan Quartermain; the graphic novel depicts him as being an elderly, scrawny, self-doubting, opium-addicted has-been. Connery’s Quartermain, on the other hand, comes across as a not-so-elderly, well-fed, self-confident man not addicted to narcotics. Stuart Townsend is probably the most well-known of the supporting cast. Townsend is dashing and mercurial as Dorian Gray, who imperviousness to bullets makes him a useful addition to the League. Townsend is every inch the Victorian dandy - his mannerisms seem to be based upon Wilde himself, firing off witticisms at every opportunity and cloaking himself in a shroud of mystery. Townsend was obviously still smarting from getting the boot from Lord of the Rings (he was the original Aragorn.)



Hastily drafted in at the last moment was Peta Wilson as Mina Harker - in the graphic novel she was Mina Murray, taking her maiden name after divorcing her husband and becoming a social pariah in the process. She was also NOT a bloody vampire. This “minor” deviation actually seems to work cinematically, as all of the conversations with Quartermain about her past life have been excised during the translation from graphic novel page to script page. As originally conceived, Mina was the unofficial leader of the League, being able to coax the best out of the members, and even going so far as having a very physical relationship with the very elderly Quartermain. In both incarnations, Mina wears a red scarf around her neck to cover the wounds she received from Dracula, however, Wilson has drawn much criticism playing it so masculine (in Australia, they breed their women tough: look at archetypal men they have to put up with…) that it would appear that wearing the scarf also serves another purpose - to conceal her Adam’s apple…

Although it was a real bummer that the original Invisible Man could not be used (in the DVD release of Santa Sangre, Alejandro Joderowsky said that he got clips from Universal’s classic movie cheaply because it is now in the public domain, so ponder than one), but Tony Curran as Rodney Skinner is not too bad a replacement, even if one too many references to areas below the waist are made. Jason Flemyng takes on the dual roles of Dr Henry Jekyll and Mr Edward Hyde - the meek and insecure Jekyll constantly tries to suppress his alter-ego, who demands his right to exist, whilst grappling with the fact that the only reason he has been recruited by the League is for the savage powers of Hyde. The beast was realised by having Flemyng in an incredibly elaborate make-up job (designed by top effects man and former husband of Scream Queen Linnea Quigley, Steve Johnson) and using CGI compositing to increase him in size from six-feet to nine-feet. The results work out better than most people would have imagined, even if the initial transformation reportedly caused unintentional laughter during preview screenings.

As previously mentioned, of all of the literary characters brought to life in the cinematic League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Naseeruddin Shah as Captain Nemo is closest in spirit and appearance to the depiction in the graphic novel. Shah IS Nemo - the dusky, mysterious sea-faring explorer with an array of fantastic machinery at his disposal. By stark contrast, the dimmest and most nauseating addition to the movie was that of Shane West as Special Agent Sawyer, a character which was thrown in just to give the American market something to identify with. His inclusion was also meant to bring about a treacly father/son dynamic between him and Quartermain, the kind which big movie studios seem to think that audiences universally love. At one point, as if to justify his inclusion into both the League and the movie, Sawyer is asked what America’s interest in this caper, to which he replies “...if war starts in Europe, how long is it going to take until it crosses the Atlantic?” Whether or not you think this line was intentionally amusing may depend upon which side of the aforementioned ocean you live on…

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen did not perform as well as expected in America , but it did much better business in “foreign” territories - one could argue that American audiences are not as well-read as others, though with the illiteracy rate at an all-time high in the UK, this argument loses much of its foundation. Many of the characters will probably draw blank faces from anybody under the age of 30; sad really, as the rip-roaring adventures of Allan Quartermain used to be almost required reading for most boys before television supplanted reading as the main escapist medium. Quartermain, Dorian Gray and maybe even Captain Nemo will be lost on many viewers. One could also argue that it is indicative of the throwaway nature of modern society that anything other than up-to-the-minute is unacceptable, and the second the very latest drops out of vogue, it is tossed on the fire as kindling for the next ex-sensation. Rather depressing, we’re sure you’ll agree.

In the interests of throwing crumbs to fans of the source-material, there is a nice reference to the second volume of the graphic novel and during the audio commentary it is hinted that if the sequel is green lighted, it will follow the same storyline, which concerns the invasion of Earth by HG Wells’ Martian tripods. That would be deeply cool if had ever have gone ahead, but with Spielberg bringing out his version of War of the Worlds only two years later, not to mention passage of time, then this is now looking a trifle unlikely.

Video

This is a rather nice-looking transfer - but it must be said that the 2.40:1 image is a prisoner of it‘s own cinematography, and while easily outperforming the very high standards set by the R2 DVD release, which was a great example of the very best of the format, it doesn‘t shine quite as brightly on Blu. Much of the movie takes place in dark and dimly-lit locations, and here, even the darkest of scenes are reproduced with a depth and clarity which is meat n‘ drink to the format, if not with the greatest of finesse. Black levels are good enough for such a dour production design, and there is barely a hint of grain (with what remains purely filmic and appropriate) accompanying mostly solid images, with only a few instances where things look a little soft, including a few less-than-great CGI effects. Overall, it’s a nice-looking disc, and highly unlikely to have a top-to-toe remaster in the debatable event of a 4K release.

Audio

The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is, in the words of noted art-critic Franklyn Marsh, “quite a different matter”. Watching it in a DTS-equipped cinema was almost a painful experience, and before anyone goes slipping in gags about the quality of the movie, we’ll just clarify that it was due to the explosive nature of the sound. Right from the outset when the tanks smashed their way through the streets of London, the impact of it was incredible, and we can report it’s just the same here. Surround usage is plentiful, almost reveling in expanding the soundfield as if to detract from a few of the more obvious other deficiencies. Bass really thumps, and brings needed weight to some of the shakier visuals. The DTS track on the R2 DVD was an example of the best the format had to offer, and the Master Audio option found on this HD upgrade upholds that fine tradition.

Extras

First off, there are two sets of audio commentaries, the one of which features two of the producers and actors Shane West, Jason Flemyng and Tony Curran whom are brimming with amusing anecdotes about the filming and how they staved off the boredom of a complicated shoot. Track two has the costume designer, the visual effects supervisor, make-up supervisor and the miniatures creator, covering the practical side of things. The most enjoyable track is the first, as Curran & Flemyng make an amusing team, but track two, as is often the case with effects commentaries, is a little too dry and un-involving but still worth a listen, though. Most interesting of both tracks is when the cast recall springing some of Connery’s lines on him and getting him to name the movie they came from. The younger actors were perplexed that he didn’t pick out the iconic “Chicago way” speech from The Untouchables, for which he won the academy award, and comes as rather interesting that he called it a day after the filming was over with.

"Assembling The League" 6-part documentary (53:42) - Carried over from the DVD releases comes this documentary, which runs for just under 54 minutes and certainly isn’t your standard puff-piece. Divided into several sections, it paints a fairly intimate portrait of the trials and tribulations of movie-making, including the floods in the area which ended up making headlines around the world. You also get to look at the work that went into constructing the Venician sets; when you see them in daylight on the documentary, you can appreciate them even more, as the workmanship on them is simply breathtaking. You also get to see the damn-near inhuman suffering that Jason Flemyng went through to appear as Hyde on screen - eight hours of make-up a day is enough to test the patience of any actor.

12 Deleted and Extended Scenes (12:28) - This is the section that will have the rest of the world gnash its collective teeth in jealousy: all of the deleted scenes that were in the single disc release in the US are all present and correct, bringing the number up to 12 in total. Many of the scenes feature minor additions, but there are a few that really should have been included in the final cut.

4 Trailers (4:46) - Four trailers are included, and these are generally what you would expect, with various trailers for different stages of the movie’s release. Of interest is that one of the early trailers used to feature a shot of Jason Flemyng wearing a tight green outfit giving a reference performance to be replaced by the larger-scaled version of Hyde during post-production on the DVD edition, but has now been corrected.

Overall

Many people disliked The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen when it hit cinemas back in 2003 - the main criticisms came from two camps; the hardcore fans of the project disliked both the Americanisation of the concept and its numerous deviations from the source material, but many casual fans hated the fact that the movie was too quirky & whimsical in nature. We thoroughly enjoyed the movie on the big screen, and for those who either did not catch it during it’s theatrical run check it out on DVD and for those who were unimpressed with it at the cinema, this perfectly nice release from Fabulous Films is a great way to reappraise the movie, and a great way to laugh up your sleeve at the minimal extras on all other releases.

 


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