Monday, January 26, 2009
The first Underworld film had Kate Beckinsale as Selene, a vampire who hunts and kills lycans. She's a Death Dealer in a centuries old war between vampires and werewolves. Set in the present day or thereabouts, the first film served up a kind of Romeo and Juliet of the mythological beast crowd. Selene discovers a human (Scott Speedman) who gets transformed into a werewolf-vampire crossbreed, and falls in love with him against the wishes of the vampire coven. Engineering the experimental species is Lucian (Michael Sheen), a powerful lycan whose own Romeo and Juliet encounter with a vampire ignited the battle that currently rages.
Bill Nighy and Rhona Mitra as father and daughter bloodsuckers in Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (Screen Gems)
Rise of the Lycans goes back a few hundred years to tell Lucian's story and how his love for Sonja (Rhona Mitra) was the root of all the present day strife. Nothing very complicated here. Lucian, a werewolf slave to vampire war lord Viktor (Bill Nighy - how do they get all these good actors?!) falls in love with Viktor's daughter Sonja. The two carry on a clandestine relationship but when her father finds out, all hell breaks loose. Lucian and the werewolves (along with some down-trodden peasants) storm Viktor's castle to rescue Sonja. The attack leads to tragedy for the lovers and sets off the centuries-long war.
This third Underworld film is directed by special visual effects wiz Patrick Tatopoulos, who's been with the franchise since the first film. His taking the helm means that this latest film will showcase effects work. Although the werewolves still look a bit plastic and rigid around the face, we get impressive packs of them rampaging through the film (do werewolves travel in packs like wolves or do they have a collective noun uniquely their own?). The effects, though, are less varied here than the ones on display in Underworld: Evolution in which the powerful vampire hybrid Marcus sprouted some glorious devilish wings. Tatopoulos fares well as an action director, packing a lot of furious activity and bloodshed into just over ninety minutes. I think that since he comes to directing with a background in effects, he relies less on shakycam and tries to deliver steadier shots that highlight the effects work. Tatopoulos keeps the film short and he's lucky to have real actors like Sheen and Nighy even if they do little more than widen their eyes and snarl a lot. They are at least capable of commanding attention without inciting constant laughter. It's actually an improvement not having Scott Speedman and Kate Beckinsale around, they looked pretty but that's about it. Sheen and Mitra (from Doomsday ) are more interesting to watch.
Bill Nighy and Michael Sheen battle for best snarling honors in Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (Screen Gems)
None of the Underworld films have delivered much in the way of originality. The costumes, action and visual style of the first film looked recycled from The Matrix (which had opened four years before to great success). And then the year the first Underworld was bragging about its innovation of mixing werewolves and vampires it was followed at Comic-Con by a panel for Helsing in which vampires and werewolves were also joined together and the film even had the same star in Beckensale. So freshness is not what this franchise is serving up. But I have to say that I did enjoy seeing Tony Blair/David Frost/Michael Sheen strutting around in an action film. The incongruity was most enjoyable.
Rise of the Lycans is in some ways the best of the three films. It has the formula down and it makes no bones about its intentions - it just wants to be a R-rated fantasy action film. It may not offer any surprises but it delivers exactly what it promises. It's mindless action fun with some cool effects work. Plus it's nice to see the werewolves get a little more screen time and personality. It also gets a jump on the big budgeted Universal remake of The Wolf Man in which Benicio Del Toro resurrects Lon Chaney, Jr.'s sympathetic werewolf.
Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (rated R for bloody violence and some sexuality) doesn't really play cleverly with either vampire or werewolf lore. I'm not sure if any of the filmmakers over the three films has much affection for the genre or for Shakespeare (whose Rome and Juliet is once again ripped off). But it does stay mostly consistent with its own convoluted mythology. If you go back and watch the first film, the flashbacks of Lucian's cruel torture are dutifully re-enacted. But the flashbacks may soon be digitally altered so that the dark-haired Rhona Mitra (who looks remarkably like Kate Beckinsale as she assumes the leather bodice) can be CGI-ed onto the blonde who played Sonja in the first Underworld film. Then the whole Underworld universe can be consistent for anyone who really cares. Rise of the Lycans is a guilty pleasure that satisfies the thirteen year-old boy in me, you know, the one who enjoyed the dumb-but-fun My Bloody Valentine 3D . In the case of both these films, I just can't get that riled up over their shortcomings since they are so unpretentious and transparent in their aspirations.
Companion viewing: Underworld, Underworld: Evolution, The Queen, Doomsday