Today’s feature is best known as the movie that made Sean Connery quit acting: “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.”
“LXG” is an adaptation from an Alan Moore comic series, who you might recognize as the guy behind “The Watchmen” and “V For Vendetta.” As is the case with most adaptations from graphic novels, the fan base of the source material of “LXG” is hard to please, and was pretty much guaranteed to bemoan any minor changes to the story that they have so cherished (see: criticisms of “The Watchmen” film ending). Personally, I treat those sort of adaptation criticisms with a grain of salt: a fan base should be considered when making a movie, but they shouldn’t dictate it. Director and screenwriters need the freedom to make a work their own. Sometimes the fans love the outcome of this creative freedom (“Guardians of the Galaxy”, “The Dark Knight”, “Iron Man”), but sometimes (most times) they hate it with the burning passion of 1000 suns (“Super Mario Bros”, “Howard the Duck”, “Batman & Robin”, “The Watchmen”, “Daredevil”, etc). This is what I call “nerd rage”: it is frequent, usually excessive, and often unreasonable. And it is powerful.
So, why does Hollywood so often take the risk of dealing with fickle fanbases? Well, partially it is because fanbases exist, and will buy tickets to see movies regardless of how they feel about the quality of the product on screen. How many “Transformers” fans do you know that went to go see those movies in spite of the quality? Film producers and studios know about that. Also, and of probably equal importance: Hollywood is “creatively bankrupt.” I put quotes there, because original ideas do exist in Hollywood and in the film business as a whole, but big studios are generally unwilling to take chances on them when their alternatives have existing fan bases waiting to flock into a theater. That is why you can expect a whole lot more Marvel movies than “John Wick”s.
In the case of “LXG,” however, both creators of the source material (Moore and illustrator Kevin O’Neill) were incredibly unhappy with the final product of the film, and weren’t afraid to let the public know: so it wasn’t just the fans this time. Moore is quoted as saying, on the topic of the film adaptations of his works: “I have a dwindling respect for cinema as it is currently expressed.” On the specific topic of the experience of dealing with the eventual lawsuit against “LXG,” he was a little more colorful:
“They seemed to believe that the head of 20th Century Fox called me up and persuaded me to steal this screenplay, turning it into a comic book which they could then adapt back into a movie, to camouflage petty larceny.” This led to Moore giving a ten-hour deposition – he believes he’d have suffered less if he’d “sodomised and murdered a busload of children after giving them heroin.”
Anyway, rage aside, let’s dig into “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.” The film is directed by Stephen Norrington, whose film career was effectively destroyed by it. His only other major directorial work was “Blade,” a comic book adaptation that managed to not infuriate everyone in the known universe. He previously worked special effects on “Aliens” and “Alien 3,” which is pretty impressive stuff. However, the production process of “LXG” apparently burned him out entirely: not just the poor reception, but the difficulty of working with the producers, the studio, and the dealing with large acting personalities (Sean Connery). It sounds like the perfect storm of all of the elements ultimately did him in. He has gone so far as to publicly state that he will never direct a film again.
“League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” cinematographer Dan Laustsen has worked on a number of other notable productions, mostly in the horror genre. These include Guillermo Del Toro’s “Mimic,” both version of “Night Watch,” and the film adaptation of “Silent Hill.”
The film was written by a guy named James Robinson, whose other credits include…not much. The thing that kills me is that the few credits he does have seem to be related to comics on the whole, so I am willing to be he was a big fan of “LXG” going into it. I’m willing to bet that the reception was not pleasant for him.
One of my favorite B-movie writer/directors, Larry Cohen, was involved in a lawsuit against the “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” production, claiming that the film plagiarized a script he and Martin Poll pitched to 20th Century Fox multiple times called “Cast of Characters,” which included a number of characters that wound up in the film but were not present in Alan Moore’s source material for the movie. To say the least, that is pretty suspicious, as is the fact that the matter was settled out of court (which stinks of a payoff to me). The fact that such an inexperienced writer was solely trusted with the writing of this major studio project is also a wee bit suspicious.
The cast of “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” is highlighted, obviously, by the last hurrah of sorts for Sean Connery, who plays the famous fictional adventurer Allan Quatermain. The rest of the cast includes Richard Roxburgh as the primary villain (more on the similarities to “Van Helsing” in a minute), Jason Flemyng as Dr. Jekyll / Mr Hyde (again with the “Van Helsing” flashback…), Tony Curran (VIncent Van Gogh in “Doctor Who”, the conductor in “Midnight Meat Train”) as an invisible man, Shane West as Tom Sawyer, and a host of other minor actors playing various literary characters.
Much has been made of Sean Connery’s role in “LXG”: it is said that he only took it because he regretted passing on two other major roles (Gandalf in “Lord of the Rings” and Morpheus in “The Matrix”), and didn’t want to miss a potential franchise winner. Sean Connery is also reported to have been somewhat of an intimidating presence on the set, making other actors uneasy and being a general nightmare for the director, Stephen Norrington. He also went do far as to demand major script changes to make his character more likable.
“LXG” was absolutely stomped by critics upon release, and the audience reaction wasn’t much better. The film currently holds a 17% critic score and a 44% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. Financially, the movie made a reported 179 million on a budget of 78 million, which is certainly profitable. However, aspirations were clearly much higher for the film. A sequel was reportedly planned that would be based on “War of the Worlds” by H.G. Wells, but the poor reviews and not-good-enough box office performance meant that this potential space epic never quite managed to get off the ground. It probably didn’t help that the director and star both rage-quit the industry as a result of the production, either.
Personally, I feel like critics were way too harsh on this movie at the time. I remember liking it well enough as a kid, and I still found plenty of positives to enjoy upon a re-watch. For most of the movie, the CG stays pretty reserved: I still think that the invisibility effect looks pretty solid. Also, the practical effects used for Mr. Hyde (when they are used) look great. I’m also a big fan of the production designed, which has garnered the film a bit of a cult following due to its steampunk aesthetic. I particularly adore the interpretation of Captain Nemo’s Nautilus. It is just cool.
All of that said, there are a fair share of issues with the film, to say the least. The CGI gets way out of control as the film goes on, climaxing in a ridiculous battle between Mr. Hyde and a…bigger Mr. Hyde? It looks absolutely awful. The plot also starts to unravel after the twist, and pacing goes completely awry heading into the third act. When Sean Connery starts staring at a tiger for a few seconds in the snow, and you can’t help but wonder where the hell the story went.
In a recent post on “Van Helsing,” I mentioned a lot of similarities between that one and this one. So, how do they compare? Let’s start with a few of the similarities.
First: is RIchard Roxburgh a better villain in “LXG” or “Van Helsing”? I think this one has to go hands down to “LXG”: Roxburgh’s Dracula is just plain awful. He’s hammy, but not hammy enough, and doesn’t come off as threatening in any way. Q in “LXG” is at least mysterious, and I liked his costume design pretty well.
Second: which has the better Jekyll/Hyde? I have to give this one to “LXG” as well: while the CG bits of Hyde do look awful, there are also a few moments of really solid-looking practical effects on the character. In “Van Helsing,” it is all bad. However, he also isn’t a central character to that story, which is worth noting.
Third: which has the better cast of characters? Both movies are built on the concept of throwing a bunch of existing characters together. As far as appearances go, this go to “LXG” again. As fun as the Universal monsters are, Frankenstein’s monster is the only one who looks any good in “Van Helsing.” On the the flip side, “LXP” offers better execution on the team members: the invisible man effect, Nemo’s costume design, and the moments of practical Hyde all particularly stand out. However, it is also hard to argue that the League is more fun in concept than the Monster Mash bunch.
“Van Helsing” is overall a more fun movie to watch. However, it isn’t nearly as polished across the board as “LXP.” On a quality level, I think “LXP” gets the nod, but not by a whole lot. It is still a bit of a train wreck, but it is at least occasionally passable. However, “LXP” is also way too subdued, touching on being outright boring. There is a lot of standing around, which doesn’t happen in “Van Helsing.” There may be awful CGI and horrendous accents, but things are consistently happening in that movie. Overall, I think it is too close to call.
If it weren’t for all of the interesting background, I wouldn’t recommend the “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” to people. Again, there are things I like about it, but the product on the whole is a bit south of mediocre. I don’t think it is the legendary failure that some critics hail it as, but it is certainly not good.