Sean Connery looks better bald than just about any actor alive, so it always seems a bit emasculating when he’s outfitted in one of those wiry gray hairpieces. In The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Connery, sporting a singularly mediocre rug, plays Allan Quatermain, swashbuckling hero of colonial Britain, who gathers together some of the most mythic figures of 19th-century fantasy literature into what’s meant to be a kind of Classic Comics version of ”X-Men.” Connery purrs and growls with dependable Scottish-lion finesse, but I kept wishing that he would rip that damn thing off his head. Then again, he’s far from the only one on screen to be undercut by his synthetically primped appearance. Virtually everyone in ”League” looks as if he just escaped from a costume shop.
Take Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah), who wears a sword, a blue turban, and the bushiest of long black beards. Nemo is supposed to be the lordly commander of the Nautilus submarine, but he looks more like a doorman at an Indian restaurant. Then there’s Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend) — yes, THAT Dorian Gray — who swans about in complicated facial hair and a silky gray pin-striped suit, like a Savile Row runway model. If I make an issue of the way these people are dressed, that’s because there isn’t a lot to them apart from their wardrobes. ”The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” is set in 1899, when the fate of the earth is suddenly at stake; Quatermain and his League are facing down the Phantom, who plans to unleash new, modern weapons of mass destruction (e.g., tanks and bombs) to foment world war. In addition to Nemo and Dorian Gray, the League includes the Invisible Man (Tony Curran); Mina Harker (Peta Wilson), widow of Dracula investigator Jonathan Harker (and now a bloodsucker herself); the boyish Secret Service agent Tom Sawyer (Shane West); and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Jason Flemyng).
The movie is based on a 1999 series of comic books by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, but the original tone of deadpan historical audacity has been replaced by a kind of wax-museum literalness. Basically, we’re watching all of these famous names pasted onto a lot of anonymous grade-B acting and limply staged fight scenes. The director, Stephen Norrington, who made ”Blade,” has never shown much interest in mere mortals. Surprisingly, though, he does next to nothing with the lady vampire Mina, who comes across as more embalmed than threatening, or the Invisible Man, a Cockney joker who covers himself in white greasepaint.
The one character who’s kind of fun to watch is Mr. Hyde, a strappingly muscle-bound, crew-cut simian giant who has been given just enough human qualities to point to what the makers of ”The Hulk” should have done. It’s not that the special effects are stellar (Hyde’s massive body looks like a wad of dirty Silly Putty), but that there are hints of wit to his titanic, leering rages. He’s the only one on screen who seems to have figured out that gentlemen have less fun.