As if reports of dissension on the set weren't enough, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has the bad luck to open at the tail end of a box-office slump for big-budget special-effects extravaganzas. Based on a relatively obscure comic book, and with a largely untested cast, League will have trouble competing in a crowded market.

Teaming famous fictional characters is a game comic-book fans love, but the assembly of heroes on display here is never more than an odd stunt. Despite the strenuous efforts of screenwriter James Dale Robinson, it turns out that Dracula's mistress and Captain Nemo don't have much in common, not even thrown together with an Invisible Man knockoff and Great White Hunter Allan Quatermain. In any case, it's doubtful that the target audience will appreciate the script's dizzying conflation of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Robert Louis Stevenson, with nods to everyone from Edgar Allan Poe to Ian Fleming. Are teens going to recognize H. Rider Haggard references?

When a mysterious villain known as the Fantom threatens European peace, British agent M (Richard Roxburgh) summons Allan Quatermain (Sean Connery) from his self-imposed exile in Kenya to help. Dubious at first, Quatermain grudgingly accepts leadership of a mission to stop the Fantom, who is threatening to destroy Venice.

First to join Quatermain is Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah), who supplies both the submarine Nautilus and a mastery of martial arts. Petty thief Rodney Skinner (Tony Curran) has stolen a serum that renders him invisible, but can the others trust someone they can't see? Mina Harker (Peta Wilson) is a vampire battling the virus in her blood. Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend) made an unholy pact to become immortal. Henry Jekyll's serum turns the shy scholar into the beastly Edward Hyde (Jason Flemyng). The final addition is Sawyer (Shane West), a Secret Service sharpshooter from the United States.

During the journey to Venice, the taciturn Quatermain bonds with the impulsive Sawyer, while Gray and Harker resume an interrupted affair. Once in Venice, the heroes are beset by explosions, soldiers in armor with automatic weapons, and their own suspicions of each other. The survivors are soon off to a remote volcanic island, where the Fantom is hatching his most devious plan yet.

Director Stephen Norrington keeps things moving briskly while marshaling a staggering array of special effects. In fact, the effects ultimately take on a character of their own--an overbearing one who forces mere humans into the background. The League's version of the monstrous Hyde out-hulks The Hulk, but at the cost of learning anything interesting about his personality. So little of real consequence is at stake that you'll have plenty of time to notice how the names on not one but two tombstones are misspelled.--Daniel Eagan