Almost nobody has any praise for this one. Roger Ebert said this film was going straight onto his Ten Worst list. And when the actors from this one, such as Sean Connery, went on the talk shows to promote the film... well, after a while, you learn to spot when a big-name actor is selling the movie only because he’s contractually obliged to, and is painfully aware as he does so that it’s crap.
But it turns out that this film is not as bad as all that. In many areas, the quality and originality of the Alan Moore story shines through. At other times, this almost seems like a parody of an action blockbuster. Even more than Daredevil, this is a comic book movie that has major strengths, and equally major flaws.
The premise is an alternate history in which many famous characters of 19th century genre fiction are all alive together. The League consists of Captain Nemo, Dorian Gray, Dr. Jekyll, the Invisible Man, Mina Harker (from Dracula), Tom Sawyer, and as their leader, Allan Quatermain (from King Solomon’s Mines and sequels). The opponent that they are recruited to stop, who is attempting to start World War I fifteen years early, turns out to be an equally famous character. Many of these characters are quite well realized. However, scenes involving Mr. Hyde, who is here imagined as a Hulk-like monstrosity of muscle, are mostly just embarrassing. And Sean Connery (as Quatermain) is pretty much just coasting these days.
Speaking of Hyde brings up the subject of special effects. Hyde mostly looks like a bad foam rubber suit, and the transformations look like they were done for a much less expensive movie. This film contains both some of the best special effects and some which by modern standards are real groaners. It contains some fine action sequences, and also a large handful of retarded “Why aren’t they all dead, the bad guys must be worse shots than Imperial Stormtroopers” sequences. The plot contains moments of inspiring inventiveness and moments of thin contrivance. It has frequent stupidities, yet the overall story arc is intelligently written. The Nautilus is beautifully designed, but they keep parking it in water about a quarter as deep as the sub is tall.
The opening act, in which the League gathers its forces and makes its way to Venice, with tensions and suspicions spreading among them, is mostly well done. Then once in Venice, where they have to try to stop the whole city from being blasted to rubble, the movie turns to shit — it comes down with a bad case of the Summer Blockbuster horrors, and the action gets so phony that it would take the muscles of a Lou Ferrigno to suspend the weight of your disbelief. Once they get to their next destination, things recover and the movie turns fairly decent again. The climax, like the Venice section, involves tons of action — so much that some other parts of the film end up feeling rushed and compressed to make room for it. But the story hangs together pretty tightly and involves you pretty well, and carries you through to the end.
There are times when you just have to groan and throw something at the screen, but there’s no denying that this is what it claims to be: by far the most original of current action films. It’s frustrating, yet for me it was more satisfying than disappointing (unlike Daredevil). Many of the things wrong with the film (except in the Venice section) could have been fixed by more careful filmmakers without changing anything else very much, and as such it’s possible to look past them, the way you look past an unconvincing special effect in a cheaper film. The question of whether its flaws are forgivable is balanced on a knife-edge, and I would bet that any given viewer, even if s/he really likes comic book movies, has only about a fifty-fifty chance of putting up with its defects.