A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS ˝j
 

2009, R, 92 mins.

 

Bill Nighy: Viktor / Michael Sheen: Lucian / Rhona Mitra: Sonja / Kevin Grevioux: Raze

Directed by Patrick Totopoulis / Written by Danny McBride, Dirk Blackman & Howard McCain

More PhotosNo need to consult a jury, because if my final say means anything to you, then I can now confidently state that there has never been a more needless film trilogy than the UNDERWORLD series.

All I know is that after I left the second UNDERWORLD film, subtitled EVOLUTION, I wrote in my review that, If you are like me and don’t really recall the first film in any discernable detail, then following (or for that matter, investing in) EVOLUTION will obviously become an exercise in futility.”  Now that I have sat through the unremorsefully dreary, murky, tedious, and disenchanting third film, RISE OF THE LYCANS, I can now unequivocally state that no other trio of films have ever meant less to me.  As I frantically rushed to the theatre exit (rather excitedly, I may add) to “escape” from RISE OF THE LYCANS, I was overcome with the thought this is a film as emotionally vacant as any I can recall: I simply just tuned out and did not care.  Few film going experiences have left me feeling so self-loathingly empty inside. 

Moreover, you’d think that after two largely failed attempts that that the creators would have found a compelling and involving story to be told about two of the cinema’s longest standing creatures: the vampire and the werewolf.  After the first film in the series – the surprise hit from 2003 – and more so at the conclusion of 2006’s sequel, I felt that there was not one memorable character or distinct line of dialogue or and stand-out scene in any of these films.  Yes, Kate Beckinsale did look fiendishly sexy in her black leather leotard, dishing out death to those around her in blatantly MATRIX-esque gravity-defying martial arts heroics, but, c’mon, there was never one point during those first two films where the pristine looking actress felt plausible in her role as a vampire/hunter.  Linda Hamilton, circa TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY…now there was a believable, tough as nails female action hero with low key sex appeal, but Beckinsale was just too unapologetically luminous for the part of an undead “death dealer”.   

If there is one thing that RISE OF THE LYCANS does right (its only one thing, mind you) is that the actress is not in the film.  As much as she was pure, fanboy eye candy in the first two films, the believability quotient of her appearance wore thinner by the minute.  This time we have the equally luminous, but much more satisfyingly hard-edged and lethal Rhona Mitra, whom you may recall playing a feminine Snake Pliskin role in last year’s agreeable splatterhouse/grindhouse effort, DOOMSDAY.  She has a much better combination of flawless beauty and fist clenched robustness than the porcelain beauty that is Beckinsale, but Mitra is saddled with such an abysmally undeveloped part, frequently having to utter lines of such mind-numbing inanity that you find it really hard to invest in her on any meaningful level.  

Much, alas, can also be said of the rest of her supporting cast. 

Okay…so we have a new kick ass heroine…so what else is different this third time around?  Well, RISE OF THE LYCANS is a prequel that focuses on the origins of some of the characters and events leading to the first two Vampire/Lycan orgies of wanton carnage and mayhem.  Since I cared exceptionally little for the personas in those two films, the thought of a film exploring the genesis of their universe seemed equally wearisome and wasteful.  And now that Beckinsale has gone bye-bye, what possible motivation could all of the diehard aficionados of this series have for seeing RISE OF THE LYCANS?  For the record, Beckinsale does appear in the film…sort of.  She provides a barely emotive voiceover narration that opens the film and appears ever so briefly during the its final shot…which looks like it was suspiciously and shamelessly lifted from the first UNDERWORLD film.  

You know a sequel is in trouble when the lead actress from the first two films can’t be bothered to film a brief cameo for loads of cash. 

Okay…so we have an origin story…one that returns viewers way, way back to beginnings of the whole werewolf and vampire struggle.  We are whisked back hundreds of years in the past when the werewolves (lycans to the uninitiated) were slaves to vampires…period (considering this is a prequel/expository film, not much in the way of compelling back-story is provided to explain the reasons as to why).  The head of the vampires, Viktor (Bill Nighy, hamming it up to eye rolling levels of disbelief) is one that – we learned in the previous film – is one of the most ruthless minded and old of the bloodsuckers.  He has both an intense innate hatred of all werewolves while simultaneously finding respect for their animalistic power and force.  Through slavery (sorry, once you’ve enslaved someone, you are inhumanly evil) he has created a small, but mighty army of lycans.  Viktor has one favourite among them, Lucian (an almost unrecognizable Michael Sheen), one of the most fiercely determined, brave, and strong of all the lycans.  Lucian is an obedient slave, but his obedience to Viktor takes a back door to his lust for Viktor’s babe of a daughter, Sonja (Mitra).  Hmmm...can't say I blame him.  She's one smokin' nosfurato.

Here’s the problem: vampire and werewolves making sweet whoopee is a big time no-no in vampire lore, so the pair must get down in secret without anyone finding out.  Things get very bad for the pair when Lucian completely defies his master by coming to the rescue of Sonja during a near fatal altercation with some bloodthirsty and uncontrollable lycans.  During the gory battle Lucian manages to take off a locked collar that inhibits his shape shifting to a monster (funny, but I never understood how a crummy little spiked collar would be able to bear the brunt of a man morphing into a gigantic beast, but I digress).  A lycan removing his collar is even a bigger no-no than boinking a vampire, but maybe not as bad as getting lucky with your master’s daughter.  Needless to say, Lucian is captured by Viktor and locked away, but this acts as a catalyst for his burning desire to start a werewolf revolt against the vampires that have brutally incarcerated them…and for too damn long. 

Am I supposed to care about werewolves being treated as slaves?  Honestly…what parallels is this film trying to draw here?  As some sort of disguised allegory, RISE OF THE LYCANS is horribly obvious, I guess, but it’s decidedly hard for me to feel any sympathy for human-killing monsters that are enslaved by other human killing monsters.  Oh…but wait…we are supposed to feel for the plight of Sonja and Lucian because they really love each other and – gasp! – a threat to Lucian is an assault to their passionate admiration to one another.  There is definitely a struggle that tops the personal one of Lucian and Sonja to keep their love alive with one another in the film: my ability to (a) keep a straight face and not unintentionally laugh all through this film and (b) my ability to stop checking my watch and looking at the theatre exit all the way through this film.   

For a film takes its world and story so solemnly, RISE OF THE LYCANS is almost absurdly funny at times.  If you question this look no further than Bill Nighy’s uproariously silly turn as Viktor, whose work here is the only thing that kept me from nodding off into a peaceful slumber.  Seeing Nighy strut himself through scene to scene without any discernable level of performance moderation and tact is kind of a miraculous feat in itself.  He is forced to utter some of the most ham-infested and banal dialogue that any vampire has ever dared to in a film, like “We are no better than the beast at our door” or “You betrayed me…to be with a bloody animal” to “I should have crushed you under my heel when I had the chance!”  One thing is certain: Viktor is about as scaring as Count Chocula.  Then there is Michael Sheen, whose inexplicable appearance in this film kind of baffled me to no end.  This is the same actor that gave such winning and virtuoso portrayals as Brit Prime Minister Tony Blair in THE QUEEN and as journalist David Frost in last year’s masterful FROST/NIXON.  In RISE OF THE LYCANS he is a screaming, salivating, monosyllabic and grizzled spectacle that spends the film finding the best possible way to inflict a severe lycan-inflicted butt-whooping on Nixon…er…I mean…Viktor.  As to what possible stimulus the actor had – aside from an eye popping paycheck – to creatively demean himself for this paltry, dime-a-dozen role of slave turned revolutionary kind of eludes me.   

Len Wiseman, currently Mr. Beckinsale, helmed the first two UNDERWORLD films, but even his reliably wretched direction from those films is not on dubious display here.  In replacement we have Patrick Tatopoulos, a rather respected movie creature effects wizard that had his hand in films as far ranging as i, ROBOT, THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK, INDEPENDENCE DAY, BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA, LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD, and most recently, I AM LEGEND.  His talents in terms of physical effects would seem like a natural compliment to a monster-heavy film like this, but this first time feature film director shoots RISE OF THE LYCANS with such a disagreeable level of darkness and overall drabness that it becomes, most of the time, next to impossible to follow the action from one minute to the next.   

Now, it’s kind of obvious why he would shoot the film with such a genuine lack of visual cohesion and symmetry: a clearer approach might have highlighted how rudimentary and unrefined the CGI effects of the lycans are here. More brightly illuminated shots would have utterly put the blurry, hazy, and B-grade effects work in the film on a clearer pedestal ripe for easy mocking.   Once you’ve seen one horribly desaturated, murkily lit and dreadfully choreographed battle scene pitting vampires against lycans…you’ve kind of seen them all.  And…yes…since sunlight kills vampires, I do expect most of this film to be rather grungy looking, but you can still make a very ominous looking film that has a reasonable level of coherence with its action and stunt pieces.  Is it too much to ask for a shooting style and cinematography palate that allows viewers to modestly make sense of what’s happening on screen.  

In this film’s case, apparently not. 

I am not feeling nearly as forgiving to RISE OF THE LYCANS as I was to the previous films in this Gothic monster-on-monster series.  Even with some notable changes for the good (like Mitra’s sultry, seductive, and ruthlessly battled-hardened presence in replacement of Beckinsale’s Maxim-cover girl sheen), this is yet another UNDERWORLD entry that feels like it has repeated too much of the same formulas and ideas from the previous entries: limply developed characters, a storyline that lacks a morsel of human – or inhuman – interest, an aesthetic style that taints the screen with such haphazard and ugly flourishes (it makes you want to spray the screen with Windex), and finally a story and themes that never feels nourished past the initial brainstorming sessions.  Even more abysmal is that this film has nothing of value to say and/or contribute to the lackluster presentation of the characters from the other UNDERWORLD entries.  There is a potentially intriguing series of films to be made about creatures like vampires and werewolves that hones in on their underlining loneliness, disillusionment, and tortured sense of immortality.  Instead, we are lazily bombarded with a lot of frenetic, gory, and hastily cobbled together action scenes and character development that is borderline comatose.  If you did not care about the story journey of the first two UNDERWORLD films, then going back to the beginning of the journey with this film is kind of pointless.  Here’s hoping that RISE OF THE LYCANS is the final stake to this trilogy’s heart.  

In my mind, that would bring about merciful closure.

  H O M E