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In a (sorry) league of its own

The bottom of the action barrel officially has been scraped this summer with the release of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a dreadfully old-fashioned yarn that seemingly sprouts whiskers as you're watching it. One wonders exactly what segment of the audience the filmmakers think they'll satisfy with this flight of non-fancy.

They can't really believe that casting 72-year-old Sean Connery as lead hero will attract youthful moviegoers who dominate summertime ticket sales. Fans of the comic books that provoked Stephen Norrington's film will squirm through rudimentary introductions of characters _ at the expense of a fanciful plot _ created for the majority of viewers with no knowledge of the series. Action aficionados will shrug off the uninspired mayhem, set at the turn of the 20th century when a tank or an automobile is a big deal.

Literature buffs will scoff at what Harrington has done on screen with some of the most exciting fictional creations of all time. That noise in the background is the sound of at least a half-dozen literary masters spinning in their graves.

Appreciating The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen requires a remedial English Lit class. Connery plays Allan Quatermain, the African explorer whom H. Rider Haggard steered toward King Solomon's Mines in 1885. Quatermain is retired from the bwana game in 1899 when this movie begins, but agrees to join a mission to prevent an arms race that could start a world war. He is partnered with other famous book characters to that end.

We meet Captain Nemo (not the clownfish, but equally at home underwater) from Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, played by Naseeruddin Shah. Peta Wilson (TV's La Femme Nikita) plays Mina Harker, wife of a vampire slayer in Bram Stoker's Dracula, and now a bloodsucker herself. Tony Curran gets little face time as the Invisible Man, a sequel of sorts to H.G. Wells' creation since the novel's title character was killed. Jason Flemyng does Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde routine, and Stuart Townsend plays it oily as Dorian Gray, whom Oscar Wilde conceived as the picture of eternal youth.

The film's lone concession to the youth market is casting Shane West (A Walk to Remember) as an impetuous U.S. government agent named Sawyer, presumably Tom although Mark Twain wouldn't find any resemblance to his famous character.

Norrington's movie has two things going for it: The set designs, mostly computer-generated, are terrific, from London's dingy streets to interiors of Nemo's massive Nautilus submarine; and Flemyng's Mr. Hyde character, also computer-generated and doing the Hulk bit better than Hulk did. Of all the plagiarism Norrington and screenwriter James Dale Robinson attempted, the Hyde special effects are the most impressive.

The rest of the film is a humorless mess, always taking itself more seriously than it deserves (unlike something like Charlie's Angels 2 that gains more success as it embraces its badness). Connery is his usual regal self, but he's so laid-back that we can never believe the world is truly in danger. The rest of the league gets a scene or two each to demonstrate their particular talents, although none has the parceled excitement of X-Men's democratic heroism.

Some scenes beg to be ridiculed, like the Nautilus _ looking a half-mile long _ sailing through the canals of Venice, as if it's a straight shot from the sea to their destination. Others drag long past their usefulness, like Quatermain's first meeting with Nemo, the Invisible Man and Mina when everyone shares their back stories. The violence is occasionally gruesome for a PG-13 movie, yet the payoff for the bad guy is as exciting as a burned match tip. Move along, folks. Nothing extraordinary here.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Grade: C-

Director: Stephen Norrington

Cast: Sean Connery, Naseeruddin Shah, Peta Wilson, Jason Flemyng, Stuart Townsend, Shane West, Tony Curran, Richard Roxburgh

Screenplay: James Dale Robinson, based on the comic book series by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill

Rating: PG-13; graphic violence, brief profanity, sexual situations

Running time: 110 min.

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