'Extraordinary Gentlemen' makes for an ordinary movie

It's no easy trick to take an assortment of fascinating characters and create a movie about as exciting as a stale scone. But director Stephen Norrington and screenwriter James Dale Robinson have done just that with "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," a grayish, plodding Victorian adventure.

"League" began life a few years ago as a comic book, by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill, with an irresistible premise: A group of mid-Victorian literary/adventure characters band together in 1899 to save civilization from a masked madman. This superhero-ish gang includes adventurer Allan Quatermain (from H. Rider Haggard's novels), Captain Nemo (from Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" and other works), Mina Harker (Bram Stoker's "Dracula"), Dorian Gray (from Oscar Wilde's novel), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (from Robert Louis Stevenson's novel) and others.

This is heady stuff (think what fun we all could have had if the gang, say, traveled backward in time and showed up at Jane Eyre's orphanage), and the comic book looks like a treat, with elegantly detailed, dark-toned drawings. Just the thing for a lively Saturday-matinee movie, right? As a Victorian heroine might have said, before retiring behind her veil: Perish the thought.

The movie, alas, isn't extraordinary at all; it's just dull, a little mystifying, and more than a little cheesy. (Those who thought the Hulk looked fake should get a load of Mr. Hyde's muscles; he looks like a jumbo-sized slab of blue-veined ham.) And that's a shame, because it should have been a pleasure spending two hours with these characters — each of whom, in their original incarnation, had more than enough personality to carry a movie.

Here, they're each reduced to a trait. Quatermain is Sean Connery — and apparently that's quite enough for any one character. It's always a pleasure to see Connery on screen, but here he mostly strides around firing his gun, taking his glasses on and off, and having things explained to him.

He does have that inimitable Connery way with a line. When Quatermain is told that the empire needs him, he lobs back, "The queshtion is, do I need the empire?" — and for a brief, shining moment, hope springs eternal. But the movie doesn't know what to do with him, nor does he seem to know what to do with it.

Mina Harker (Peta Wilson) was a leader of the League in the comic books, I'm told, but here she's merely its token woman and resident vampire. These coexist uneasily; at one moment, she's snarling with blood-drenched lips, at another, decorously acting as nursemaid to the wounded. (Granted, a vampire nurse is an intriguing idea, but nobody seems to have had the wit to pick up on it.)

Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend) is foppish and witless. Rodney Skinner (Tony Curran) is invisible. So is Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah), even though we can see him — he's got virtually nothing to do except play host on his elegant submarine, Nautilus. Tom Sawyer (Shane West) has been tossed into the mix as a token American — he's not in the comic books — and his presence is as pointless as you might imagine; he's a visual non sequitur.

And the masked Phantom makes an underwhelming villain. He shows up in a Victorian library and gasps out, "I am the Phantom," sounding like he's just returned from a workout, or perhaps from a matinee performance of "The Phantom of the Opera." I half-expected him to start singing "The Music of the Night," and rather wished he had.

As for the special effects — the reason many of us watch an action/adventure film such as this — we can only hope that the money saved went toward a worthy charity. Mr. Hyde, as mentioned, looks absurd, and the film's various explosions are always shown from a long distance and aren't remotely convincing. ("The buildings are falling like dominoes!" shouts somebody during one action sequence. But alas, wishing does not make it so.)

I'm told the comic books are much more fun than this (a quick glance through the first one certainly bore this out).

Read them, or read any of the original books these characters are based on, for some real adventure. There's little to be found here.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Movie review

"The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," with Sean Connery, Stuart Townsend, Tony Curran, Peta Wilson, Naseeruddin Shah, Shane West, Jason Flemyng, Richard Roxburgh. Directed by Stephen Norrington, from a screenplay by James Dale Robinson, based upon the comic books by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill. 112 minutes. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of fantasy violence, language and innuendo. Several theaters.