When Underworld first burst onto our screen back in 2003, I was immediately taken with the trailer. The image of a leather clad Kate Beckinsale, shooting holes in the floor to drop one story below, then flinging expanding razor sharp silver discs at the screen are still stuck with me. I very much enjoyed the film, even when it failed to really deliver on its promise of pitting two of cinemas most enjoyable monsters against each other. Instead of tooth and claw we were dealt bullets giving rise to a distinct action slant rather than horror. Come Evolution in 2006 things had moved on, there were now two serious monsters, actual horrible icons; a demon vampire and a wolf looking werewolf - never got on with the fact that the designers made the werewolves in this universe more feline in appearance - and if it wasn't for the rather weak story line this could have been the better film. Both, however, have some merit and are held with enough regard, i.e. made enough money, to warrant a third outing for the franchise. This time, the makes have gone backwards in time, an origin story, if you will, as to why the 'underworld' exists and what issue caused such a bloody conflict that has been raging for centuries. Thus is born tonight's feature, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, and can the franchise finally deliver what it has been promising for so long?
Ancient werewolves are feral beasts, little more than animals they exist to maim and consume. Yet it was from one such beast that Lucian was born, unlike his mother he was human in looks but with superior strength and reflexes and the ability to change to a wolf at will, and not governed by the moon. Upon seeing the creature, Viktor, leader of the vampire coven chose to breed him to create an immortal line of slaves, protectors for their daylight slumber and general work dogs. However, increasing brutality towards his 'kin' and an illicit affair between Lucian and Sonya, Viktor's daughter, conspire for him to seek his freedom, but the ultimate cost is dear - on finding out that Sonya is pregnant with Lucian's child, Viktor burns her in the daylight - inciting Lucian to reign down fury on the vampires with his now considerable werewolf army that contains both ancient and 'new' species in a war that will last until the extermination of either one.
Now as I see it, the major problem with this film, irrespective of how well it looks, is acted, or contains spellbinding effects, is that the story has already been told. In the first Underworld. Everything in the above paragraph was spelled out in flashback and was a major plot twist of that original film. So over and above the normal prequel lack of peril, in that you know how it turns out, you now have to contend with already knowing the story before the disc even spins. To get over this stumbling block, the film will have to be something very special indeed.
The creative team assembled to bring this film to the screen was pretty much the same that had already worked on the previous two, with just a little re-jigging. Patrick Tatopoulos, previously the creature designer, gets his chance in the director's chair and for the most part does a pretty competent job. The torture scenes of Lucian are aptly hard watching, serving to bring some feeling, the love scene is just warm enough to emote and the action scenes have enough to them to make you sit up and take notice. The film rockets along at a furious pace, lest anyone figures out that they've already seen this. The characters, again whom we've already met, are little more one dimensional here, I mean they were never particularly fleshed out in the previous films, but here they only have one job. Bill Nighy as Viktor is particularly brutal, playing more the monster with little of the cunning and sinister creature he would portray in the later/earlier films; this actually works well, he is not the all powerful vampire yet although his screaming of betrayal gets too much at times. Mike Sheen as Lucian, through whose eyes we see the story unfold, is pretty magnetic, he looks, sounds and contains the presence needed to control the bestial werewolves. There is even enough charm towards Sonya that we can believe his love. Not quite the same can be said for Rhona Mitra, though, who is as cold and drained as the vampire she plays, with little or no presence; one wonders what Lucian sees in her.
Production design and stylistic look are much the same as the previous films, exaggerated blues and deep longing blacks. The wolves are suitably dog like, except Lucian himself who still has the daft cat like appearance. And then there is the story, reputedly written quickly due to the writers strike of last year, along with an undercut budget; the makers really were up against it to bring this one to the screen. On the plus side the film look incredible, the stylistic choices do work, the sets are big and grand, there is little of that 'contained' feel that the film obviously had. And it's clear that everyone put everything they had into the production, trying desperately to make it work. And it only just works. Just. Scraping through by the skin of its very large teeth.
Once you can get over the aforementioned déjà vu the film can be enjoyed on a very simplistic level; a comic book Spartacus with shades of Romeo and Juliet. The vampires, all decked out in armour and broadsword (if they are so powerful how come all the weaponry? That one is never explained) get to battle it out with some huge werewolves in many set pieces. The stage coach attack is one scene that stands out in my mind. Of course it also has to overcome the critical panning it received at the hands on the critics on its cinema release. Now I know this is no masterpiece and nor is it pretending to be, so quite why it got such a backlash is beyond me; it is clearly rubbish, but it's happy to put itself forward as such. Perhaps I have a soft spot for this kind of film, or even this franchise in general, but Rise of the Lycans is pure dumb fun, with the emphasis on dumb.
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