Truth is the first casualty in war, but in Hollywood, when it comes to literary adaptations it's the subplots and marginal characters that are usually the first to go. Not so in "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," a 2003 adventure based on Alan Moore's graphic novel, which was illustrated by Kevin O'Neill. The filmmakers actually added characters, but messed with the tone and premise even more.
In Moore's novel, it's a fellow literary legend that sets this group in motion. When Sherlock Holmes is reported to have been killed during a fight with Professor Moriarty, an opium-addicted Allan Quartermain pulls himself together and joins forces with other literary figures. Quartermain, who has become a broken man since failing to profit from discovering King Solomon's mines (from the novel by H. Rider Haggard), basically gets a chance at redemption. Joined by ex-pirate Captain Nemo (from Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea"), the Invisible Man (of H.G. Wells' creation), Dr. Henry Jekyll (who, of course, turns into Mr. Hyde in the Robert Louis Stevenson novel), and Mina Harker (who's doing relatively okay since suffering that nasty bite in "Bram Stoker's Dracula"), he sets off to set things right.
In the 2003 big-screen version, filmmakers added the characters of Dorian Gray (as in Oscar Wilde's "Picture of") and Tom Sawyer (Mark Twain's creation). And they whitewashed the characters a bit to make them more heroic and suave than the oddities they were in the novel. Then, perhaps inspired by the presence of Sean Connery, they went with a plot involving a madman who tries to make staged attacks against nations look like the work of different countries, confident that a world war will let him emerge as the sole power on earth.
The premise is fun and the opening leads you to believe that it might be an interesting adventure, but there's a certain stiffness to it all-and I'm not just saying this because it's the English secret serviceman known as "M" (Richard Roxburgh) who calls them all together to serve Great Britain. The film just feels average, as if something exciting was filmed in shorthand, glossing over things that might have added texture and depth. As distinctive as these characters were in literature, they really don't leap off the visual page. Then again, little touches like a turban on a seldom-speaking Nemo, a Hulk-sized torso on Mr. Hyde, and a curiously immortal Dorian Gray make the characters more conformingly Hollywood. Watching this, you experience a sense of déjà vu. It's not a matter of whether you've seen it all before. That part is painfully obvious. It's more the question of where that distracts you-like a clone robot army being built in a remote location such as Mongolia? Hmmmm. Then too, while comic books presume characters and situations that defy reality, there are things in this film that defy reason.
I've never been to Venice, but it's a little laughable to have Nemo's Nautilus, which he calls the Sword of the Sea, slicing through the narrow canals even though it's five city blocks long and looks like a cruise ship that's been squeezed on both sides to make it slender as a sabre. More laughable is that these characters flit here and there, with no real development possible-either in character or plot. And lovers of literature will absolutely cringe when Nemo's first mate says, "Cal me Ishmael."
That said, the special effects are believable, the plot (however average) is still going to engage people who love this sort of movie, and for the rest of the movie-loving public there's Mr. Connery. He still has charisma and a screen presence that's capable of rescuing a film from complete silliness or boredom, and he does so here. Though the script doesn't leave much room for character development, you get a far different vibe when Connery is on-camera than you do when Naseeruddin Shaw appears as Nemo, Peta Wilson as Harker/Murray, Tony Curran as the Invisible Man, Jason Flemyng as Jekyll/Hyde, Stuart Townsend as Dorian Gray, or Shane West as a twenty-something Tom Sawyer.
"The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" is one of seven titles that Fox released in its first Blu-ray wave, and what strikes you first is the small paper insert that reads, "This Blu-ray disc is manufactured to the highest quality available. It is possible this Blu-ray disc was manufactured after your Blu-ray disc player. To ensure the best possible viewing experience, your Blu-ray disc player may need a firmware or software upgrade. Please consult your hardware manufacturer's website for the latest firmware or software version and, if an upgrade is available, we suggest that you follow its installation instructions."
So there you have it. As the technology evolves, we're all going to have to keep pace with upgrades, else at best the disc won't look as pristine, or at worst the darned thing won't play.
Curiously, this particular disc took a LONG time to load, which is not the case for several other Fox Blu-ray releases I've managed to watch. When you click on a menu screen, the animated options just CREEP across the screen.
As for quality, the 1080p picture (AVC transfer at 16 MBPS on a 25GB single-layer disc) is pretty good, though this isn't a film to showcase Blu-ray. It's an overall murky film, with many scenes shot in low-light or darkness. Other scenes are just the opposite, as in one shot with an all-alabaster background-and white wreaks havoc with the camera. There's a slight graininess there, as there is on other scenes with soft-focus backgrounds. However, if you consider the shot of the Nautilus scraping under a Venice bridge, there's a full range of detail on the ship and very little haloing on the lights that pop up here and there in the darkness. Most of the time the margins are distinct, and though there could have been more color saturation one suspects that the original source master also had a muted palette.
The DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio is stronger, though it seems to be transferred at an awfully high volume. If you don't want to startle the socks off your guests, make sure you carefully monitor the audio commentary track. It's recorded at such a lower volume from the rest of the film and disc effects that you get quite an earful if you change back.
As for sound quality, there's a brassiness to this soundtrack that makes me think the bass could have been a little richer, and I suspect that people who don't mind tinkering with their systems for each disc will make an adjustment. Otherwise, the sound is bright and full, with good distribution across the speakers.
Other soundtrack options are Spanish and French Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English and Spanish.
Since this is the first Fox Blu-ray release that I'm reviewing, a word about what I suspect will be their "style" of design. As with other studios, they feature a "pop-up menu" that allows you to continue watching the film while you navigate the animated menu. Rather than spread small boxes across the screen for the scene selection, they've opted to go for a single scene at the bottom that you can advance to the next with your forward arrow. That means a bit more navigating to get to some of the later scenes, unless I've missed a short-cut.
Two other features will be great for fans who want to show off certain moments without being dependent upon scene selection, or who want to assemble a kind of "highlight" reel of favorite scenes to show off. There's a topical index where, for example, you can click on "Venice" or "London" and it takes you right to that spot in the film. The "Search Content" feature is really nice. So is the "Personal Scene Selections" feature, which allows you to program scenes to watch in succession.
The most unique bonus feature on this particular disc is an LXG Shooting Gallery Game which takes a shoot-'em-up scene from the film and turns it into an interactive gallery, where you move your "sights" across the screen and pull the trigger to get assigned targets. It's a little sluggish, so if you're going to hit anything you really have to anticipate camera switches and lead the bad guys as if you were shooting skeet.
The commentaries are pretty average-one by producers Don Murphy and Trevor Albert and actors Jason Flemyng, Tony Curran and Shane West, and the other by costume designer Jacqueline West, visual effects supervisor John E. Sullivan, make-up effects supervisor Steve Johnson, and miniatures creator Matthew Gratzner. I suspect it will be a matter of preference, but I thought the level of detail was stronger on the second commentary, and there was even some dissention. Rounding out the extras is a trivia track that isn't as extensive (or offensive, for that matter) as many such pop-up tracks.
"The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" is a film that could have been worse, but should have been better. Apart from a villain who looks as if he could have walked off the "Star Trek" set, Sean Connery is the only one who commands our attention. There is just enough action and comic-style invention to make it watchable.