Opening Friday, January 23rd
Directed by Patrick Tatopoulos
Welcome to the most cut and dry Underworld of the trilogy. A prequel that eschews the convoluted intrigue of the first two films, gets down ‘n dirty (furthermore bloody) by slamming claw against steel, and defies expectations. Carried by the performances of two seasoned actors and a first-time confident director familiar with the universe, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans is the best of the series, a rip-roarin’ good time for fans eager to dig into this origin story that sheds light on the instigating factors behind the feud between the Lycans and the vampires.
To be honest, after seeing this, I’d say the bloodsuckers had it coming. When Lycans picks up – with a voiceover intro from not entirely absent Kate Beckinsale – the vampires are sitting cozy in a rugged, mountainside fortress (shades Lord of the Rings‘ Helm’s Deep) under the reign of Viktor (Billy Nighy). Viktor fathers – at arm’s length – the upbringing of Lucian the first Lycan, a man/beast hybrid who can transform at will. He enslaves the dutiful Lucian (Michael Sheen) and forces the young man to create more like him (a simple process of capture, bite, and collar, repeat). With an army of Lycans, the vampires can now use these creatures to do the grunt work and serve as guard dogs from the true werewolves that live in the surrounding woods. But, bearing shades of “Frankenstein,” Viktor’s runaway creation will ultimately turn on him.
Unbeknownst to Viktor, his daughter, Sonja (Rhona Mitra), has been shagging Lucian. This forbidden “Romeo & Juliet” affair, thankfully, isn’t seen blossoming in Lycans – it’s already happening. Nix the Twilight-esque courting process, Lucian and Sonja have no time for such shenanigans. When we first find Lucian sneaking beyond the confines of the castle walls, it’s because he’s off for a dangerous quickie with Sonja on a mountaintop. There’s always bound to be eyes watching somewhere, however, and it isn’t long before this relationship creates mucho conflict between Sonja and Viktor, then Viktor and Lucian…then Lucian’s army and anyone who happens to sport a pair of fangs and wear cool battle armor.
Love, loss, revenge, triumph… It’s well-tread ground but repackaged in the Underworld universe, it fits quite comfortably. It allows Tatopoulos and screenwriters Danny McBride, Dirk Blackman and Howard McCain to present what they’ve teased since the first film: A crowd of vampires and werewolves tearing each other apart. Of course that’s the pay-off as Tatopoulos devises a number of brutal action set-pieces throughout the film to get you warmed up, from a werewolf sneak attack to a Lycan prison break during which the vampire Death Dealers turn their massive crossbows into the castle for a Wild Bunch-esque slaughter that finds prisoners being harpooned through the chest and face. When the big brawl comes, it is admittedly pretty cool to witness hundreds of werewolves charging into battle.
Without some advancement in the special effects, none of this would have worked and thankfully Tatopoulos and his team, on both the practical and CG front, pull it off. Ross Emery’s photography captures the gloomy visual aesthetic of the series which, in fact, helps ease the digital-looking nature of the loping lycanthropes who, here, bound through the trees, burrow in the ground and scale rock walls. (Although I find it funny that during their “down time” they’re just lounging around in a cave somewhere.) It should also be noted that, three films in, the “transformation” sequences have gotten much better as well.
As for the harmless, overwrought drama, all actors take to their characters with passion. Both Nighy and Sheen almost seem to be trying to outdo one another in regards to chewing up the scenery. The award goes to Nighy, however, who sells every line and lends Viktor some unexpected shades of weakness. Sheen, meanwhile, leaps back into the skin of Lucian with a wild-eyed glare and unwavering strength – even when he’s taking a whipping that almost matches what Jim Caviezel suffered through in The Passion of the Christ (bet you didn’t expect that to get mentioned here, did you?). Mitra’s Sonja is a welcome addition to series. Stubborn. Sexy. A believable match for Lucian. And it’s great to see the hulking Kevin Grevioux reprise his role as Raze, a dude who – before he becomes a Lycan – proves he can knock out a werewolf with his bare fists.
The production design is eye-catching and the attention to detail is to be commended. Tatopoulos succeeds in making Lycans look big. Without a doubt the team behind this latest entry knows the world inside and out and they’ve crafted an enjoyable living, breathing comic book-style romp. It still takes itself pretty seriously, but unlike the previous entries, you’re not sitting through the action sequences preoccupied with trying to sort out the labyrinthine connections between all of the characters (a big flaw of Underworld: Evolution). Lycans whets the appetite for not more adventures of Selene and Michael Corvin (Beckinsale and Scott Speedman, respectively) but exploration of Lucian’s journey. Furthermore, it launches what is hopefully a long directing career for Tatopoulos. This is an auspicious debut for the FX and production design vet.