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The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

A mess of heroes

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Certainly it's a delicious concept: Confederate a group of superpowered (or at least hypercompetent) beings from late 19th-century literature to thwart a world-threatening villain. That's the premise of Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's comic-book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but its big-screen adaptation is one of those cinematic train wrecks that warrant not so much a review as an obituary.

The film's theme is science run amok: The villain, a masked loony called The Fantom, practices terrorism throughout Europe in hopes of inciting world war and creating brisk new markets for his innovative military technologies.

In a touch of War on Terror commentary, the Fantom's role as both international aggressor and arms supplier might suggest a certain North American nation of today. But in a film that begins with director Stephen Norrington's tilt from a crepuscular "20th Century (Fox)" logo down into a menacing vision of nighttime gaslight-era London, the operative anxiety is the vagaries of technological progress.

The malady afflicts even the ill-matched heroes. Dr. Jekyll (Jason Flemyng), for instance, is Hyde-bound by an elixir that transforms him into a top-hatted Incredible Hulk, while Rodney Skinner (Tony Curran), who had hoped invisibility would help his professional thievery, is now cursed by his power. Vampire Mina Harker (Peta Wilson) is a scientist, trying to find a cure for her curious blood condition. The group also includes seafaring gentleman outlaw Captain Nemo (Naseerudin Shah); meanwhile, the heroes most at ease with themselves are those least overtly touched by science: adventurer and nominal group leader Allan Quartermain (Sean Connery); American Secret Service agent (Tom) Sawyer (Shane West); and most anomalously, Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend), a mysteriously immortal dandy whom bullets cannot harm.

The film never explains supernatural presences such as Gray's and Harker's in an otherwise technologically determined world. But its bigger problem is the delusion that throwing in enough outlandish characters will make a viable movie.

Instead, the need for Norrington and writer James Dale Robinson to first introduce all the heroes, and then let them display their powers at least three times each, fatally overloads the 100-minute flick. There's barely time for a cohesive story line, let alone the character development the script sketchily references.

But there is time for a dozen mostly incoherent action set pieces, and a host of idiotic touches including: a bunch of African villagers running toward an explosion; the fact that Nemo's submarine Nautilus looks 15 stories tall but breaches at a London wharf and sails through Venetian canals as easily as would a dinghy; and characters repeatedly slipping through torrents of bullets apparently no more dangerous than lawn sprinklers.

The photogenic cast, further burdened by dialogue that drops from their lips like pearls of lead, is helpless. Like the furiously uncooperative Hyde, who turns back into timid Jekyll then inexplicably rematerializes as the League's faithful pit bull, they're given nothing coherent to say or do beyond shooting guns and throwing punches while the special effects rage all about them.

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