In a league of its own

Film - Philip Kerr on the most expensive bad movie he's ever seen - and his pal who wrote it

Nobody is surprised when a wine costing less than a fiver tastes like paint stripper; but you might have cause for complaint if you had forked out £800 for a bottle of Petrus and it tasted bad. It's just the same with films. More is expected of a film that cost, say, $78m, like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. There are plenty of bad films around. But there haven't been many that cost as much as this bad film. It's been a while since I saw a really expensive bad film. But this is a real stinker.

Decades ago, you might remember, there was a film made called The League of Gentlemen. Jack Hawkins played a retired army officer who, feeling let down by his country, recruits a group of other like-minded men, to help him pull off a robbery. Not a bad film. The sort of thing you could see any afternoon on the telly as early as 1972, probably.

I mention that date because I think it was around then that a boy called Alan Moore found himself expelled from my school for possession of LSD. The headmaster took a dim view of that sort of thing, although any fool could have seen from Alan's poems in the school magazine that he was an imaginative young man, and that, probably, a hard rap across his knuckles would have been enough of a deterrent. I felt rather sorry for Alan, but never really expected to hear of him again. So it was with some pleasure that, several years ago, I learnt that Alan is now one of the biggest names in the world of graphic comics. A picture in a newspaper confirmed that it was indeed he, looking very much the same as he had some 30 years ago - that is to say, hairy and hippyish, rather like the Oz editor who got away without a haircut. I dare say that Alan probably switched on one of those afternoon showings of The League of Gentlemen. For all I know, he might even be as fond of it today as I am. Fond enough to use it as the basis for a graphic novel called The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

I haven't read Alan's "novel" but, like some of his others (From Hell, for example), it has now been turned into a movie. I'm sure Alan's is a very good graphic novel, but it is my considered opinion that the movie version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is quite close to being the worst film I have ever seen. Worse than Waterworld, which wasn't nearly as bad as everyone said it was; worse than The Postman; worse than Ishtar; worse even than Casino Royale.

Set in 1899, the story is that the British empire in the shape of security services chief M (Richard Roxburgh) calls on Allan Quatermain to lead a team comprising the Invisible Man, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Mina Harker, Dorian Gray, Captain Nemo, and er, Tom Sawyer (the Americans were a bit short of literary heroes in 1899). The team's job is to stop a villain called The Phantom from blowing up Venice and a peace conference taking place there. The villain of the piece turns out to be M, who also happens to be Professor James Moriarty.

The story might have worked well in a comic book; but here it is nothing short of a disaster. Nothing makes sense. A car chase, in Venice? That would be bad enough, but the movie, directed by an Englishman, Stephen Norrington, contains more cliches than any movie I know.

Martin Amis published a rather fine collection of journalism entitled The War Against Cliche. Watching this film is like facing a whole army of cliches, as if they were being generated by a computer, as in The Matrix Reloaded. They come thick and fast, but mostly thick. At one point I couldn't write them down quickly enough; there were too many of them to record.

For your forensic delectation (since I don't recommend that you see this film) I provide some of the most egregious examples:

"Our last parting was such sweet sorrow," Mina tells Dorian.

"Stay back if you value your life," says someone else.

"Home? Home is where the heart is - that's what they say."

"You will not live beyond today; that I promise you."

"The buildings are falling like dominoes."

But as well as the cliches, there is dialogue of the most risible kind:

"You're Allan Quatermain," someone tells Big Sean. "Stories of your exploits have thrilled English boys for decades."

"This is my first mate," says Nemo. "Call me Ishmael," says the man. (Er, wasn't that another book?)

But my own favourite is this one:

"I'm an immortal, sir," says Dorian, "not a gazelle. How can we outrun this?"

The only extraordinary thing about this film is that it got made at all. Quite dreadful.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (12a) is on general release

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Scrap privatisation now