The SmarK DVD Rant For The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen

The SmarK DVD Rant for the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

– When it comes to movies, sometimes deconstructing the bad can be almost as interesting as praising the good. Actually, it works that way with wrestling, too, but it’s rarely as interesting.

For instance, when it comes to bad movies — REALLY bad movies — they generally fall into one of a few different categories:

1) Lost causes. These are low-budget, B-level quickies that are only there to recoup their money on video, and if they make a profit, all the better. It’s not really even fair to take shots at them.

2) Good intentions. The director wants to make one movie, but the studio wants him to make another, and the result is a huge mess. This would be Alien3, for instance, a fascinating movie in its own right.

3) Mass-produced studio crap. This is the domain of schlockmeisters like Jerry Bruckheimer or Devlin/Emmerich, pumping out cookie-cutter action movies every year to diminishing returns. Generally anything with a roman numeral these days is gonna fall here, or anything where the advertising and CGI budgets exceed the rest of the production costs. The Matrix sequels were dangerously close to this area, too.

3) Good ideas gone bad. This is a big-budget movie with full backing of the studio and a good director who has done similar stuff before, taken from surefire source material, which ends up flopping and stinking up the screen for whatever reason. This one brings to mind two movies from the recent past, both of which I thought were gonna kick ass based on the trailers and the stars, and which disappointed me to no end and I could never quite place why. The first movie was Wild Wild West, and the second was this one — LXG.

Even after hearing all the negative reviews from the movie in the theaters, the concept it just so ingenious and the idea so fresh that I desperately wanted to love the movie when I sat down to watch the DVD. I gave it every chance in the world, and it just kept punching me in the nuts.

The Film

Based on Alan Moore’s brilliant comic book of the same name, the conceit behind LXG is that 19th century literary characters existed in the same universe, and furthermore some of them banded together in a turn-of-the-century version of the Justice League, since they were basically the early versions of superheroes in the days before comic books existed.

But then there’s the movie

I’m not sure how to best sum up why the movie so definitively does NOT work, but I think the best word is “joyless”. Whereas you’d expect 19th century fictional characters banding together like a ragtag superhero group to be full of cute literary references and fun jabs the superhero genre, what you get is unoriginal action movie setpieces and characters all jammed together like a cinematic Mr. Potatohead or something. There’s some halfway witty lines strewn in there to make you think they were trying to have fun, but how can a movie where the main action sequence involves a giant submarine plowing through Venice take itself so seriously?

At first glance, the casting and characters seem to be a good sign. You’ve got Sean Connery playing legendary adventurer Alan Quartermain (inexplicably rendered into “Quatermain” by the film), a kind of Victorian Indiana Jones who is dragged out of retirement in Africa to serve Queen and country one last time. You’ve got the fascinating Dr. Jekyll (and his alter ego Mr. Hyde) from the Robert Louis Stevenson book, constantly fighting his own evil nature — pretty much the direct inspiration for the Hulk, in fact, right down the scientist consumed by science and turned into a mindless beast. You’ve got Dorian Gray from Oscar Wilde’s world, a young man who is immortal, in exchange for never looking at his own portrait. You’ve got Mina Harker, wife of John Harker from the Dracula tales, turned into a vampiress by their adventures against the Count. And you’ve got the Invisible Man (well, sort of — it’s actually a thief who stole the formula, which is changed from the comic to provide a bit of forced character misdirection). You’ve got Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo from “20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea”. And you’ve got special US agent Tom Sawyer? Well, Shane West does a nice job playing him, at any rate, even if he sticks out like a sore thumb with that group. Heck, there’s even a nicely evil supervillain, the hideously scarred Fantom, who apparently wants to blow up Venice and start a World War 30 years early.

Seems like an easy formula, doesn’t it? Take those characters, drop them into a Victorian setting, crack some jokes, and you’ve got a 19th century Fantastic Four. But instead, you get something very different.

Take, for instance, the villain. He actually shifts identities, and motives, three times during the course of the movie. I won’t give away what those are, but let’s just say that it’s a 100 minute movie, and the big Venice bombing plan is foiled an hour in, leaving them with seemingly little to do for the remaining 40 minutes, at which point the whole thing takes a sharp turn into left field and basically renders the first half of the movie into one giant misdirection ploy. I hate it when movies do that.

But even if it didn’t, there’s no real story here. The League is assembled by the mysterious M (no relation to James Bond’s boss, I’d assume) with very little explanation from any of them as to why they’d cooperate or where M even gets his authority from. An associate of M’s finds Quartermain in Africa and they fight anonymous henchmen (I was immediately reminded of Goldmember, almost expecting Connery to chastise them into lying down and dying just on his name value alone), who are armored with chest plates that deflect bullets. This is apparently amazing to M’s associate, although I guess “A Fistful of Dollars” was still 65 years away at that point, so it might have been new to the characters. Much like everything else in the movie, though, we’ve seen it done better elsewhere. With Quartermain recruited, they collect Jekyll, go to Venice, and stop the destruction of the city by blowing up another building. How THAT works, I didn’t quite get. In fact, the entire Venice piece had me shaking my head in disbelief, and not in the good way, for the entirety of it, as I tried to figure out how Tom Sawyer was supposed to know exactly which building to crash into and how the physics of shooting a flare for Nemo to track when he’s traveling at what appears to 50 MPH further forward would work, but after a while I gave up.

And that’s the entire first hour of the movie, as much of it is spent on the submarine, talking. Lots and lots of talking, as the director throws every cheap suspense-building moment at the viewer (along with some crazy camera moves every time there’s a bomb planted somewhere, which is often) in order to make everyone seem to suspect everyone. How are we supposed to care about anyone if we have to spend 80% of the movie worried about who we can trust?

Here’s an example, and again if I’m spoiling anything for you, well, you don’t want to see this movie anyway, so you’ll get over it. Anyway, it’s established early on that there’s a traitor in their midst. There’s a moment that sticks out like a sore thumb involving two of the characters that will tell you immediately who the traitor is, but ignoring that, all the signs point to Skinner — the thief turned Invisible Man. So of COURSE it turns out to be someone else, but by the time it’s firmly established that Skinner is on the side of good, he’s been gone for so long that you can’t possibly get to like him in the limited time he has left in the movie. Jekyll & Hyde have a different problem — it’s established early on that Jekyll is a strange, drug-addicted weirdo who sees Hyde in mirrors, and Hyde is the crazy brute who will not be reined in if unleashed. And yet by the end of the movie, Jekyll has full control over the monster and he’s even lucid while existing as Hyde. So what was the point of all the angst earlier on about how he’s afraid to change into him?

The plot itself is overly complicated for a movie that’s basically a novelty version of the X-Men, as we don’t even learn what the THREAT to the world is until there’s about 20 minutes left in the movie, and even then we’re still trying to figure out what side everyone is on. And the special effects! If you thought the CGI version of Hulk was unconvincing, wait until you see Jekyll turn into a guy in a bad muscle suit! If that was CGI and the look was INTENTIONAL, then it’s all the funnier. Even the explosions are unconvincing, as everything feels like it was shot on a set and composited in. When they’re standing around in the “snow” in “Mongolia” and it’s not even getting their hair wet, I was completely taken out of the movie for good. And Captain Nemo as an ass-kicking martial artist? Gimme a break!

There are some nice things in the movie, I’ll admit. The friendship between Quartermain and Tom Sawyer is very nicely underplayed until it gets heavy-handed at the end, Peta Wilson does a great job as a vampire and has a lot of fun with it, and Stuart Townshend isn’t afraid to ham it up as the vain Dorian Gray. Everyone else is clearly just collecting the paycheque, however, including the director. Maybe he used up all his good ideas on “Blade”, a much better take on the superhero genre. In fact, this isn’t even the best superhero movie to come out that MONTH, from that STUDIO! How Fox could release this alongside the vastly superior X2, basically dooming it to die due to competition from its own fanbase, is beyond me.

Without a doubt one of the biggest disappointments of 2003 in the theaters, both critically and financially, LXG only looks worse under the unforgiving high-definition eye of DVD, leaving not only the story hanging out to dry, but the bad CGI. And it’s a shame, because with a better script and a more imaginative take on the genre, this could have been special. Those are the ones that REALLY hurt.

The Video

As noted, this is a really nice transfer that unfortunately lays all the flaws of the CGI bare. Most of the movie is pretty dark, although the contract between the stark whites and silvers of the Nautilus is handled nicely by the transfer. I couldn’t see much in the way of fault here, unlike the movie.

The Audio

A really nice Dolby 5.1 track, featuring bullets whizzing into the surrounds and good use of the subwoofer for the explosions and various vehicles. Not as good as the X-Men DTS mixes, but it’s a nice superhero mix. I guess if you can’t field a good script, make sure the sound mix is impressive.

The Extras

A pretty low-rent release, actually, which isn’t surprising given its anemic performance at the box office. You get about 15 minutes of deleted scenes, none of which are particularly interesting and wouldn’t have helped the movie. There’s a six-part documentary called “Assembling the League” that amounts to the usual EPK stuff. I’d like to see more documentaries on movies like this where they talk frankly about what went WRONG. There’s also two commentaries, one from actors and production people (the direction and Connery are noticeably absent, which shows you how quick they’re trying to distance themselves from it) and one from the technical end of things. I didn’t find either one particularly worth listening to for more than a few minutes — does anyone really care what Shane West has to say about anything? — but there might be some insight buried in there, who knows. I’m not watching it again to find out, that’s for sure.

The Ratings:

The Film: *1/2
The Video: ****
The Audio: ****
The Extras: **1/2