Time was you could see two or three B pictures on a single bill—say, a Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Walt Disney), a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (20th Century Fox), a couple of cartoons, and even a Three Stooges short. But nowadays these are A movies: They cost hundreds of millions to produce and market, they stretch on for hours, and they leave you feeling as if you’ve just been keelhauled.
Pirates is OK, in patches even better. It’s nice to hear those “arrrrrrrs” and “avast-ye”s again and to see a mob of scurvy, snaggletoothed Cockney scalawags swinging from yardarms and running one another through with sabers. The Times Square matinee audience seemed happy enough with the measured storytelling and high-spirited acting, and so was I for an hour and change. Johnny Depp is ingratiatingly fruity as a down-on-his-luck ex-pirate captain—a colleague calls him a “swishbuckler”—and Hollywood has a pair of hot, newly minted 20ish romantic leads in the agile, unassumingly handsome Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, who can swoon prettily and then pick herself up to throw some mighty punches, as a good 21st-century 18th-century heroine should. (Knightley is an uncanny hybrid: the face of Winona Ryder on the willowy frame of Jennifer Garner.) The cursed crew of the ship Black Pearl—led by Geoffrey Rush, who doesn’t walk when he can lope or speak when he can snarl—look more or less human until the moon shines down on them. In one sequence, they fight while moving in and out of lunar shafts, transforming in the milky beams into rotting skeletons.
At, say, 85 minutes, this would have been a jolly little swashbuckler, but at 143 it turns into an unholy trial. Whose idea was it to make not one but two trips to the hidden cave with the stash of accursed gold coins? Whose idea was it to pile on the climaxes, as if storybook narratives really were interchangeable with amusement park thrill rides, where people expect to travel in circles? The director, Gore Verbinski, is a smart man, but he takes two or three beats to do what Steven Spielberg could do in one, and as the movie goes on and on, he seems more weighted down by his magical ingredients than buoyed by them.
There is always Depp to keep you amazed. His Capt. Jack Sparrow offers proof yet again that this pretty boy doesn’t want to be a romantic lead; he wants to be a titanic weirdo in the mode of his sometime mentor Marlon Brando. You thought Brando’s Fletcher Christian was bizarre? Check out Depp’s swarthy pancake makeup and heavy mascara and jazzercising gestures—every line accompanied by a jiggly little dance. Depp is now squarely in the camp of Nicolas Cage and Crispin Glover. He is no mere actor. He is a role stylist.
Whatever the tedium of Pirates, it’s a cakewalk beside the shorter but infinitely more lugubrious League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The movie proves that Hollywood isn’t just incapable of adapting good novels, it’s often incapable of adapting good graphic novels. This particular graphic novel, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Kevin O’Neill, is a witty, loving, and subversive exercise: a way to revive all those eccentric heroes, villains, and monsters of the Victorian era and at the same time deconstruct the jingoist, patriarchal worldview that helped give birth to them. Best of all, the heroes/villains—ostensibly brought together to fight evil—are deeply unsavory, prone to drug abuse, murder, megalomania, and a host of other supposedly un-English things.
In the sure-to-bomb movie, directed by Stephen Norrington, the characters have all been cleaned up. Allan Quatermain, the adventurer turned bitter, quivering junkie, is now a hale and manly Sean Connery, who leads a team of straitjacketed actors through some gorgeous Victorian sci-fi settings (think of fantastical blueprints out of Jules Verne) to save the empire from a supervillain who calls himself the Phantom. The comic’s (and H.G. Wells’) homicidal Griffin the Invisible Man is now a harmless Cockney thief named Skinner (Tony Curran). Dr. Jekyll (Jason Flemyng) turns into a colossal Mr. Hyde whose obviously latex brawn makes me think I was unfair to Ang Lee’s Hulk. And the hearty, Scandinavian-looking Peta Wilson (from TV’s Nikita) has somehow been cast as the most complicated of all skinny neurasthenic English heroines, Mina Murray (aka Harker) from Dracula.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has so many wondrous elements—the characters include Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend) and Capt. Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah), and there are allusions to the worlds of Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, and even Ian Fleming—that it takes awhile for the sheer inertness of the movie to hit you. But you’ll feel your eyes glazing over by the time all the introductions are made. And while the league is frantically attempting to keep one of the world’s most magnificent cities, Venice, from imploding, you might find yourself thinking about going out for Gummi Bears. Men turn into brontosaurian beasts and women into demonic blood-drinkers. Zeppelins explode, buildings collapse, and super-submarines burst through the polar icecap. And you wait—and wait—for the magic of movies.