1/26/09

Review: Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (2009)


I honestly can't compare Underworld: Rise of the Lycans to either of the previous Underworld movies; I haven't seen them. In fact, I have a rather distressing habit of reviewing the second or third film in a cheap horror or sci-fi trilogy without having reviewed the previous ones, whether I've seen them or not. Nevertheless, I kind of liked Lycans. The references at the beginning and the end to the previous films flew right over my head and were not important to the main story at all. In general, it was just a cool hour and a half to watch vampires fight werewolves, without much more redeeming to it.

As for story, it is in the main a Romeo-and-Juliet starcrossed love story between a vampire, Sonja (Rhona Mitra, adequate) and Lucian (Michael Sheen of The Queen and Frost/Nixon, horrible) a "lycan," a sort of bastard relative of the vampires of the story with werewolf blood predominating, but who also transforms into a clever werewolf (as opposed to the dim-witted ones also in abundance). Lucian is a favorite of Viktor (Bill Nighy, delicious), the vampire chieftain, and, though a slave like the other lycans kept in the vampire's dark, massive keep, is allowed some measure of independence, and works as a blacksmith, as opposed to more onerous tasks delegated to the other slaves. Against her father's wishes (as is most of what she ever does in the story), Sonja has an affair with Lucian, "mixing their bloodlines," in the terms of some rather lame anti-prejudice dialogue which intermittently clutters the film.

Sonja aspires to be a "Death Dealer," a group of vampires who perform various tasks out in the wider world which the vampires dominate like a bloodsucking Mafia, and frequently rides out with them, or on her own, to perform such tasks as necessary. The Death Dealers deliver "protection," avenge wrongs done to their clan, fight werewolves, etc. In this story, the werewolves have become numerous enough to seriously endanger the vampires both physically and in their hold over their mortal lieges.

Because of this danger, some on the vampire council are calling for Viktor to make Lucian, who is preternaturally good at combat and oddly loyal to the vampires, a sort of general among werewolves, leading loyal slave werewolves against the rising hordes outside the gates. This Lucian probably would have agreed to do, and been good at, but Viktor doubts the plan, and before it can be put into action, becomes enraged when Lucian removes the collar which prevents his werewolf transformation and leaves the premises, even though it is in order to save Sonja against an unexpectedly fierce and powerful werewolf attack.

That's probably about far enough with the lame story, which quickly becomes a werewolf rebellion led by the outcast Lucian. Sheen as Lucian is just barely passable, playing him as a grim, besotten, werewolf William Wallace wannabe. He tries hard to be serious spouting his lame dialogue, but it would probably be too great an effort for anyone to carry off. Think of Roddy McDowall in The Planet of the Apes, without any real camp value. Mitra is similarly grim and colorless as Sonja. In fact, only a few bit players and Nighy pull off anything entertaining.

Nighy's dialogue is also execrable, but his crazy light-blue sparkling eyes and his convincing demeanor of pure evil are just plain fun to watch, even when the character seems stupid, which is most of the time.

In fact, the movie itself would be nearly completely tendentious if not for the incredible set design, the fast pace, and the frequent, sometimes too flashily and choppily cut, scenes of combat. The vampire/werewolf combat is especially satisfying when it arrives. The rules of engagement are not made crystal clear, at least to this non-Underworld fanboy, but to watch it is great fun. It's kind of like the fantasy-monster battles in The Lord of the Rings or the last Narnia movie, Prince Caspian. You don't really realize how much you had always wanted to see large groups of vampires and werewolves in a pitched battle until you actually see it.

And see it you do. Again, though in places it is too murky or choppy to be fully appreciated, in the main, it is extremely satisfying and totally worth the price of admission.

So, finally, if you are a huge Underworld fan, I imagine you'd be pretty happy with this outing. But don't expect a large role for Kate Beckinsale. It's just a cameo. If, like me, you aren't especially a fan, but like the idea of Bill Nighy as a vampire villain and vampire/werewolf combat galore, you'd probably have fun with this. If you're just looking for a cheap horror film, trust me, The Unborn is much less sit-throughable. Try Lycans, you might like 'em.

Alex
The Magic of the Movies

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