“The nineteenth century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass,” Wilde writes in his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, but the similar tendency in Blade director Stephen Norrington’s frenzied but flat The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen—set on that century’s outgoing cusp—is more like a desperate afterthought. The film bands together literary heroes and weirdos from the public domain—H. Rider Haggard’s aged adventurer Allan Quatermain (Sean Connery), the aforementioned immortal Gray (Stuart Townsend), Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah), Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde (Jason Flemyng), Tom Sawyer (Shane West), and a steely post-Stoker Mina Harker (Peta Wilson)—and sends them on an ill-lit crusade to save Britain from world domination. There’s also an invisible man, his name tweaked to “Skinner” (played by Tony Curran); the Wells estate is surely a perceptive one. The film makes a hash of its source, the comic-book serial written by genre jolter Alan Moore (From Hell) and drawn by Kevin O’Neill, which soaks exquisite period details in the curiously scarlet ink of a thousand penny dreadfuls. For all the comic’s headlong pacing, the interactions among its dusted-off adventurers are as deeply imagined as the antiquated locutions are affectionately rendered.
Moore has the widowed Mina lead the League; in the film, she’s given vampiric powers but plays third fiddle at best to the men in the group, and Peta Wilson has little to do but intermittently bare her fangs. Still, it’s mild fun watching the gang come together amid a flurry of in-jokes, and a brief interaction between in-country Connery and soon-dispatched David Hemmings offers a glimmer of hope. But once the crew is in place, only slight chemistry binds them, and even their distrusts lack any depth. The endless melees are edited as if by bread cutter, as the film toggles back and forth between various fights. Even if, per Wilde, all art is quite useless, it need not be quite as useless as this. This year’s Shanghai Knights had a lighter touch and a sense of humor in its kitchen-sink recidivism; Stephen Sommers’s Mummy movies enter triumphantly into the cliff-hanger spirit. Even Moore’s notes to O’Neill (included in the “Absolute Edition” cash-in) bespeak a sense of fun and care at odds with Norrington and company’s slapdashery: “Right, Kevin, here we go. Starch your collar and tighten your corset. We have a six-panel page to open with . . . ”
The recruitment of the ragtag lot and their gradual camaraderie is a sturdy action-film trope, a classic example of which occurs in Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai. Now Kei Kumai (the last man to direct Toshiro Mifune on screen, in 1995’s Deep River) has resurrected the late Kurosawa’s final unproduced script, The Sea Is Watching, an Edo-period drama that takes place almost entirely inside an ocean-village brothel. The story—which brings together O-Shin (Nagiko Tohno), a gold-hearted whore, Kikuno (Misa Shimizu), a gold-grubbing one, and Ryosuke (Mystery Train‘s Masatoshi Nagase), a samurai on the lam—comes from novelist Shugoro Yamamoto, whose work Kurosawa adapted for his magisterial Red Beard and poetic Sanjuro.
The formidable lineage, alas, doesn’t make for a compelling work. The circumscribed setting feels claustrophobic fast, unlike the world within Red Beard’s clinic; and what’s said here about the role of women in 19th-century Japan hardly rattles any preconceptions. The force majeure climax—an unexpected, up-to-the-rooftops flood—leads to histrionics, and the rising water is thin stuff compared to the rain framing Rashomon‘s maddening variations. Though The Sea (and the sea) wants to capture some elemental, unruly truths, it’s ultimately an over-lacquered jidai-geki curio, something for the appendix of the next book on Kurosawa.