Alan Moore, the genius comic-book writer behind Watchmen, From Hell, and many other titles, has written deeper, more rewarding books than his League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen series, but it may be his single best idea. Shackling together creations from virtually every author who put a stamp on the public imagination of the 19th century, Moore created a proto-superhero team out of such characters as Captain Nemo, The Invisible Man, Mina Harker from Dracula, Allan Quatermain, Dr. Jekyll, and, of course, Mr. Hyde. Without sacrificing the rip-roaring adventures, Moore captured how each hero and villain served to exemplify the anxieties of their age. Addicted and spent, Quatermain looked like the idea of a noble empire on the verge of collapse, while Mr. Hyde was a peek at what lay just beneath the surface of Victorian propriety. Much of that gets lost in this big-screen adaptation, but the script, by veteran comics writer James Dale Robinson, keeps enough of it to make League a cut above standard summer action fare for the first hour or so. Sean Connery leads the league as a spry, cranky Quatermain, enlisted with some reluctance on the eve of the 20th century to stop an evil mastermind from starting a world war by pitting one European nation against another. For a while, the film cleverly pits one century against the next, suggesting that one of the great contributions of the forthcoming technological advancement would be to unleash brutality that the logistics of musket and cannon warfare had previously kept in check. The cleverness of the concept, joined to production design by David Cronenberg vet Carol Spier, keeps League moving for a while, making it all the more disappointing when the problems kick in. Connery and imposing Bollywood vet Naseeruddin Shah (as Nemo) aside, a league of less-than-extraordinary actors fills out the cast, with Shane West particularly grating as token American Tom Sawyer and Stuart Townsend none too beguiling as indestructible fop Dorian Gray. As the film progresses, all its characters' internal conflicts get flattened in the interest of traditional heroics, and even those could be better. Blade director Stephen Norrington, who quarreled with Connery throughout the shoot, doesn't know how to film an action scene that doesn't devolve into chaos: One long, explosion-filled chase through the canals of Venice almost needs footnotes, and the climax drags on so long that all the talk about the upcoming turning of the century seems in danger of becoming irrelevant. League begins as a smart variation on the summer blockbuster, then loses its nerve in a second half sure to satisfy neither cheap-thrill-seekers nor fans of neglected literary oddities. What's a Mr. Hyde rededicated to doing good deeds, except a less-than-incredible hulk?
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