Nifty graphic novel turns to mush, sucking in even Sean Connery

Sean Connery was quoted as follows about signing on for 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen':

'I got offered 'The Lord of the Rings,' and I turned it down because I didn't understand it. I was offered 'The Matrix' Ñ twice Ñ and I turned it down because I didn't understand it. I don't understand this movie, but I'll be damned if I'm going to turn it down.'

Damned if it isn't our turn not to understand. After all, none of the filmmakers seems to, either.

Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's graphic novel, a dandy little pastiche in which an assemblage of 19th century literary figures do battle with a sinister genius, has become just another blockbuster from the Hollywood cookie cutter. Director Stephen Norrington comes to it from 'Blade' and indeed takes a dull blade to the comic book's wit and originality.

Connery is adventurer Allan Quatermain (of H. Rider Haggard's oft-filmed 'King Solomon's Mines'). He is joined by Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah), Draculette vampire vixen Mina Harker (Peta Wilson), U.S. Secret Service agent Tom Sawyer (Shane West), Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend), the Invisible Man (Tony Curran) and Dr. Henry Jekyll (Jason Flemyng), all in the employ of the mysterious M (Richard Roxburgh).

Didn't another Connery hero work for a boss named M? He'd have been better off returning to that role than taking this one, which reportedly led to battles with director Norrington. If they were fighting over the direction the film should take, the wrong person won.

Moore and O'Neill's elaborate, neatly detailed neo-Victorian gothic calls for a director Ñ say Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton or Jean-Pierre Jeunet Ñ with a similarly skewed sensibility. It begs for clever writing as well Ñ and goes a-begging here. The comic may be based on flights of literary fancy, but the film was torn from corporate spreadsheets.

Because the characters will be largely unknown to the intended audience of kids, they must be redefined in terms of more familiar figures. Thus, Captain Neo Ñ oops, Nemo Ñ knows 'Matrix-y' kung fu, and Dr. Jekyll's alter ego Mr. Hyde becomes Mr. Hulk (one of the few ideas from the comic that the filmmakers were happy to retain). Tom Sawyer, who comes on more like Billy the Kid, was added to Americanize the lineup, striking an iconic James Dean pose near the end. Nemo also gets a tricked-up limo, because you can't have a car chase with a submarine.

As with virtually every Tinseltown adaptation of a comic book or television show, you wonder whether anyone concerned even saw the supposed inspiration. With its cluttered action, washy-looking effects and tedious production design (London, Paris and Venice all look the same, like Gotham City in the 'Batman' movies), 'League' seems more like a slapdash sequel than a new title.

No wonder Connery didn't understand it. Instead of a script, they probably just told him which other movies they'd be throwing into the blender and wrote him an extraordinary check.

Don't make his mistake. Turn it down.

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