Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans / **½ (R)

Lucian: Michael Sheen
Viktor: Bill Nighy
Sonja: Rhona Mitra
Tannis: Steven Mackintosh
Raze: Kevin Grevioux

Screen Gems presents a film directed by Patrick Tatopoulos. Written by Danny McBride and Dirk Blackman & Howard McCain and Len Wiseman & Robert Orr. Based on characters created by Kevin Grevioux, Wiseman & McBride. Running time: 92 min. Rated R (for bloody violence and some sexuality).

Most movies inspire a definitive opinion. It’s good. It’s bad. There are varying degrees of each, but what it really comes down to is the question, “Did I enjoy watching this movie?” But, should a critic take the intended audience’s opinion into consideration? Certainly there is a degree to which it is important to consider what a film is trying to accomplish. The fact is, a movie like “Underworld: Rise of the Lycans”—which is about how the eternal battle between vampires and werewolves began—is only going to appeal to a very small percentage of film going audiences. The truth is I did enjoy watching this movie, after I got over a few indiscretions within its premise, that is.

This is the third film in the “Underworld” series, of which I have not been an avid fan. The first movie was fun enough, although it left much of the mythology of vampires and lycanthropes feeling a bit empty. The second movie was an absolute mess, trying to come off as cool and profound while miring itself in sloppy special effects and silly plot resolutions. This third entry, in its own way, goes back to the basics of this particular mythology, if still missing the overall point of the vampire and werewolf metaphors. It tells the fairly simple origins of the series’ conflict between vampires and werewolves based on just a few lines of dialogue taken from the first film.

The heroine of the first film is said to be the favorite of the vampire leader Viktor because she reminds him so much of his daughter Sonja. “Underworld: Rise of the Lycans” tells the story of Sonja’s fate and the werewolf uprising that lead to it and the ages-long war that has raged between these two supernatural species. Taking place in some long ago dark age, vampires appear to be the ruling race in a world where normal humans seem only to exist as fodder for the vampires. Rich humans offer monetary compensation to the vampires for protection. Their slaves and other wanderers act as vessels to feed and grow the vampires’ werewolf army. Oddly no human ever seems to be fed on by any vampire.

The werewolves are the vampires’ slaves. Well, no wait… There are two different kinds of werewolves. Ones that live wild and don’t have the ability to change back into men and those bred by the vampires as their protectors, who can change form at will. The vampires need protection from the wild werewolves when they sleep during the day, yet the werewolves only seem to come out at night. Huh?! The set up is just exhausting. It serves only to set up a simple class uprising tale, rather than as a dissection of the sins of man’s lust and savagery that these two mythological creatures were created for.

Anyway, the shape-shifters are all descended from Lucian, a slave spared at birth by Viktor because he didn’t retain his wolf shape. Lucian is a skilled blacksmith and warrior, who helps keep the other slaves under control; but he seems troubled by his shackles. Meanwhile, Sonja recklessly risks her life nightly to keep the wild werewolves out of the vampire sanctuary. We soon learn there is a reason Lucian is not so willing to break his bonds and rise up against his vampire oppressors.

The movie finally starts to come together once it is revealed that Lucian and Sonja are lovers. Lucian is determined to lead his fellow werewolves in a mutiny but desires to continue his affair with Sonja. Sonja is not yet willing to betray her father and her race, although she agrees the inequality between the races is unfair. Viktor’s relationship with his daughter and his slave becomes unhinged when Lucian frees himself to save Sonja during a particularly savage attack by the wild werewolves. Not only does Lucian reveal a newfound disposition to disobey, but he also reveals an ability to communicate with the wild lycanthropes. Viktor’s none to happy about the prospect of a werewolf son-in-law either.

For the most part, every detail of the plot exists to create darkened action sequences where many beasts are beheaded and limbs are severed. Once the plot turns into a forbidden love story, there seems to be a great weight lifted off the material, and the three leads get a chance to reign in some of the wayward plot. Rhona Mitra (“Doomsday”) as Sonja looks remarkably like Kate Backinsale, who played the heroine of the first two movies. Michael Sheen (“The Queen”) brings a quite dignity that suggests a remarkable performance could have been found had he been allowed to develop a more traditional werewolf role. And Bill Nighy (“Valkyrie”) continues to chew up the screen returning as Viktor for the third time. Nighy is even allowed a chance to bring just a little humanity to the character.

“Rise of the Lycans” still suffers from much of the typical ailments as most of these pop cult phenomenon do. The overly complex setup requires more thought than has been put into it. Some shoddy special effects are covered up with dim lighting and quick edits, but still a few sloppy CGI effects come glaring through. However, the action is intense, and the performances pull the story together. For those invested in the “Underworld” series and the current trend of supernatural monsters as superheroes, “Rise of the Lycans” will be a welcome escape from boredom and inadequacy.


Mollik said...

I just watch underworld: rise of the lycans yesterday, and it was amazing. it has so much action and it's one of those movies where you get entertained threw out the entire movie .

Emily said...

I can't wait to watch this movie ten times on TNT! Just a few short years and it will be in rotation along with the first two. Great review!

Andrew D. Wells said...

But it will never get the rotation of Clear and Present Danger.