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Posts Tagged ‘Richard Roxburgh’

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published May 13th 2004:

Hello again, everyone – and here we are once more at the start of blockbuster season, a part of the cinemagoing calendar with pleasures and pains all is own. First off the blocks this year is popcorn auteur Stephen Sommers’ Van Helsing – but then again you probably knew that already, given the saturation-level publicity it’s been given (the theatrical trailer alone seems to have been on nearly as often as the ‘Hurt me Gunter! Make me bleed!’ one).

Very much in the tradition of Sommers’ mega-grossing Mummy movies, Van Helsing kicks off with a loving pastiche of the Universal horror films of the 30s and 40s, depicting the terrible success of the unholy experiments of Dr Frankenstein (Sam West doing a pretty fair Colin Clive impersonation), and the sacking of his castle by the traditional mob of revolting peasants. But hang on! Who’s this lurking unexpectedly on the scene? Blow me if it isn’t Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh, in a hairstyle and costume that unaccountably reminded me of Ricky Gervais in his New Romantic incarnation). Having backed Frankenstein’s experiments for reasons of his own, the Count now wants the Monster (Shuler Hensley)…

Fast forward one year and we get to meet our eponymous hero, played (rather well) by Hugh Jackman of X-Men fame. He’s a sort of extreme-prejudice exorcist for the Vatican, tracking down creatures of the night and giving them a good slap, armed only with crossbow, stakes, circular-saw-thingy, shampoo and curling tongs. For his latest mission he and his comedy sidekick Karl (The Lord of the Rings‘ David Wenham, doing exactly what the part calls for) are packed off to Transylvania to aid tight-trousered Gypsy princess Kate Beckinsale in her struggle against Dracula and his evil female minions (no, not the Cheeky Girls). But just what is Dracula up to? And how is it connected with Van Helsing’s own mysterious past?

Naturally, this milieu and these characters come with a considerable history of which Sommers seems reasonably aware. It’s quite well known that after the death of Bram Stoker (creator of Dracula and Van Helsing), his widow successfully sued the makers of the 1922 film Nosferatu for plagiarism and got nearly every print destroyed, on the grounds that it was an unlicensed rip-off with Stoker going uncredited. Well, Stoker isn’t credited on this movie either (certainly not prominently – and neither are Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson or Curt Siodmak, for that matter), but the studio needn’t worry as their film bears roughly zero resemblence to the original novel.

Obviously not keen on contending with fond memories of Lugosi, Karloff, Cushing, and so on, Sommers has crafted this tale as a camp, tongue-in-cheek, steampunk swashbuckler, which puts simply being outrageously entertaining ahead of making too much sense. The prologue aside, it doesn’t resemble the horror films of Universal or Hammer very much – although in some ways it is very similar indeed to Roman Polanski’s marvellous Dance of the Vampires, even down to stealing a few visual flourishes.

It’s also operating in narrative territory perilously close to last year’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, sharing several characters, the same actor in the villain’s role, and a virtually identical action sequence. (I suppose it also has quite a lot in common with Beckinsale’s last big movie, Underworld, too.) But this is by far a better treatment of this sort of material – winningly played, energetic enough to cover the holes in the plot, and very inventive – Sommers even crowbars in a Bond spoof without utterly destroying the credibility of the movie.

Admittedly, after an irresistible first half hour or so, the pace flags, and the way the film lunges from one headbangingly overblown CGI set piece to another gets a bit wearying before the end. (The special effects range from the impressive to the rather ropy.) It’s too long, and the final scene will doubtless be too appallingly schmaltzy by far for many tastes. But it’s wittily played by Beckinsale and the Australians (coincidence though it doubtless is, the fact that we can now have a blockbuster where 75% of the leads are Aussies shows just how much muscle the Antipodes now wields in the movie business), and skilfully put together by Sommers. It’s not deep. It’s not thoughtful. It has no aspirations towards seriousness or genuine art. But it’s a lot better than it looks on paper: I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. A good omen for the summer.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published October 30th 2003:

For some reason, some writers meet more than their fair share of bad luck when it comes to adaptations of their work. Stephen King is legendarily unlucky in this department (although Shawshank Redemption‘s legion of admirers will point out than when one of his films works, it really works). And, to judge from the critical reception accorded to last year’s From Hell and this summer’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, comics scribe Alan Moore seems to be acquiring a similar jinx.

I’m honestly not exaggerating much when I say that Alan Moore has a fair claim to the title of the greatest comic-book writer in history. The League (co-created with Kevin O’Neill) is one of his minor, more playful works, but still streets ahead of virtually everything else on the market, a winning mixture of superhero staples, steampunk imagery, black comedy and genuine erudition.

On the face of it, Stephen Norrington’s adaptation sticks pretty close to the spirit of the original. In 1899, beastliness is afoot as a tank ram-raids the Bank of England, the German Zeppelin fleet is destroyed in its hangars, and all sorts of other caddish behaviour generally occurs. It soon becomes clear – an evil mastermind known as the Fantom is trying to start the First World War fifteen years early!

In Kenya, ageing adventurer Allan Quatermain (Sean Connery) is recruited by a mysterious spymaster known only as M (Richard Roxburgh) to lead his new League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and stop the Fantom – said League being a motley group comprising Mina Harker (Peta Wilson), Dr Jekyll (Jason Flemyng), Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah), Dorian Grey (Stuart Townsend), Tom Sawyer (Shane West) and an Invisible Man (Tony Curran). If you don’t know who all of these characters are, stop reading the review now and join a library. If you don’t know who any of them are, just stop reading the review.

This is, to put it mildly, an incredibly goofy premise for any fictional work and it’s to the credit of Norrington and screenwriter David Goyer (a comics writer of considerable skill himself) that it works as well as it does for the big screen (this kind of unlikely teaming-up happens all the time in comics – anyone remember the time Daredevil met Uri Geller? – which made it slightly easier for the book). The art direction is terrific, getting the balance between historical realism and steampunk excess just about right. The special effects are also never less than acceptable, and occasionally very impressive – one CGI brawl easily outpunches the closing battle in the rather bigger-budget Hulk.

Sean Connery’s rather fraught relationship with the director has been well documented, and it’s clear why the great man has virtually disowned the movie – for once Connery’s presence doesn’t swamp proceedings and everyone in the ensemble gets a chance to shine and do their thing. This is a bit of a mixed blessing, to be honest, as the script is nowhere near as subtle or as truthful to the source works as the comic (rather than the book’s courteous and noble psychopath, the film’s Nemo is a polite pirate/martial artist whose death-worship is rather glossed over), but it is exactly what the film needs and infinitely preferable to another film cruelly sacrificed on the altar of Connery’s ego.

But the lack of subtlety and wit in the script is generally reflected in the quality of the performances. As usual, Stuart Townsend is a particular offender and Richard Roxburgh (soon to be seen embodying another iconic character from Victorian literature in next summer’s Van Helsing) goes inexplicably and ridiculously Cockney near the end. Shane West makes zero impression as the parachuted-in Tom Sawyer, and were he appearing alongside any other actor than Sean Connery, their scenes together (which aspire to depict a warm, paternal relationship) would actually come across as slightly homo-erotic.

And, to be fair, there’s a horrendous second act sag – once the League has been assembled, things grind to an utter standstill while characters are laboriously developed and crushingly unsubtle clues as to the identity of the villains are planted all over the place. And when things do get going again, they take the form of a rather dull and half-baked Venetian action sequence which very nearly scuttles the film for good. But it rallies strongly, with some good gags and a carefully constructed climax, and I came out feeling generally well-disposed towards the movie.

The Year of the Superhero has turned out to be a bit of a damp squib as far as our spandex-clad friends are concerned, with Daredevil and Hulk both proving disappointments and only X2 really delivering on all levels. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is inevitably a bit of a disappointment, given its pedigree, but, freed from the demands of summer-blockbusterdom by its delayed release, it’s entertaining enough in its own way. Flawed, but fun.

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