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- Movie: Underworld: Rise of the Lycans
- Reviewed Format: Theatrical
- Rating: R
- Starring: Michael Sheen, Bill Nighy, Rhona Mitra, Kevin Grevioux, Steven Mackintosh, David Ashton and Elizabeth Hawthorne
- Written By: Danny McBride, Dirk Blackman, Howard McCain
- Directed By: Patrick Tatopoulos
- Distributor: Sony Screen Gems
Underworld: Rise of the Lycans
Hang on. It doesn't suck?!
By Rob Vaux
January 24, 2009
Mania Reviews Screen Gems' UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS(2009).
© Mania.com/Robert Trate
What a strange irony that the latest and best of the three Underworld films is the only one lacking the series' biggest asset. That would be Kate Beckinsale, whose icy vampiric assassin provided the only real reason to tune in to earlier entries. Bonny Kate is nowhere to be seen here, though an opening voice-over echoes her presence and a brief shot towards the end has been culled from the original as a reminder. But otherwise the former second bananas take center stage, as Bill Nighy's aristocratic vampire lord and Michael Sheen's power-to-the-people lycanthrope reveal how Underworld's ancient monster mash got started.
Both actors are far too good for such material of course (in Sheen's case, he's appearing just one day after his Frost/Nixon received a Best Picture nomination). But they throw themselves into their duties with earnest enthusiasm, aided by a script-by-committee that actually seems to know what it's doing for a change. Gone is the muddled political tangle of earlier movies. Gone is the repetitive structure, empty posturing, and lifeless romance between Beckinsale's Selene and Scott Speedman's half-breed Michael. In its place… well, okay, in its place there's a lot more of the same. But it's cleaner, sharper and much more fun than in the past, and that makes all the difference.
Sheen and designated replacement Kate Rhona Mitra duplicate the star-crossed lovers routine in Rise of the Lycans, generating decent chemistry and thus giving us a greater stake in the outcome. She plays Sonja, daughter to Nighy's Viktor and the apple of his eye back in the Middle Ages (when things that go bump in the night didn't have to hide their true nature). They meet as Lucian is working in the smithy of Viktor's castle, while she patrols his kingdom as one of the fearsome Death Dealers. Like all Lycans, he's a slave: bred by Viktor to keep his vampiric coven safe from daytime interlopers. At first, he's relatively happy with his lot, but his forbidden union with Sonja and general poor treatment at the hands of the vamps prompt him to plot an escape. The romance complicates matters: Sonja is still loyal to her father despite her love for Lucian, who is reluctant to simply flee without her. Unfortunately, Viktor has long since lost any capacity for emotion and now cares only about holding onto power… which eventually turns Lucian from scheming fugitive into full-blooded revolutionary.
The arc remains fairly predictable, while the movie itself clearly sides with the oppressed Lycans against their vampire masters. Within that framework, however, it attains a simple, robust excitement well suited to such pulpy endeavors. Politics arise (mostly within Viktor's undead brood), but it stays straightforward without losing the Machiavellian sheen it requires to function, while the combat scenes are bloody without descending into overt exploitation. The look of the film keeps the "dark" in the Dark Ages, but avoids the murky confusion which plagued the franchise's second entry. Director Patrick Tatopoulos has worked mainly in the visual effects department before now, and he proves adept at the helm here: bringing the various set pieces to life and making the modestly engaging action scenes easy to follow.
Nighy and Sheen, for their part, relish the opportunity to take center stage. Though they both dial the campiness down from their previous entries, there's still a twinkle in their eyes that reminds us to lighten the hell up--a playfulness which they achieve without reducing the inherent drama in their characters. Dialogue brimming with cliché becomes wryly amusing in their hands, and while Beckinsale's absence can be felt, Rise of the Lycans takes pains to tie it all into her story with a reasonable amount of elegance.
None of that makes it Citizen Kane, of course. Though it flirts with the Shakespearean, it has little interest in being anything but a second-tier popcorn flick and its convictions can't disguise the B-movie goofiness that has always lain at the heart of this trilogy. But for a January release kept far away from the critics, it succeeds surprisingly well at its appointed task. To do so without the star who got things this far makes it doubly impressive, and for a series that never exactly stunned the cinema world with its quality, a solid piece of genre entertainment represents the closest thing to a pinnacle it is likely to find. Enjoy the pleasant surprise and don't poke too hard at its shortcomings: we can see them on display without having to ruin the fun in the process.