– Summary –
Director : Patrick Tatopolous
Cast : Michael Sheen, Bill Nighy, Rhona Mitra, Kevin Grevoux, Steven Mackintosh, Craig Parker, David Aston, Elizabeth Hawthorne, Larry Rew, Jared Turner, Timothy Raby, Kate Beckinsale, Tania Nolan.
Length : 92 Minutes
Synopsis: A powerful young Lycan, Lucian, rallies his fellow werewolves against the despotic rule of Viktor, the Vampire King who threatens to enslave them forever. When Lucian and Viktors daughter Sonja fall in love, this sets in motion a chain of events that will not only lead to the longest blood feud in mythical history, but also set in motion events that play out in the first two Underworld films.
Review : Chaotic, logic-free Underworld franchise entry sees Michael Sheen return to the role that made him famous, that of Lucian, the Lycan. Directed by effects guru Tatopolous (who gave us the Godzilla monster in Roland Emmerichs plodding film version in ’97), Rise Of the Lycans is like watching somebody else play a video game on X-Box. It’s hardly as much fun as doing it yourself. The story gravitates from the silly to the scary, a concoction of prancing and strutting by the characters offers nothing more than good sound bites for a trailer or two. Rise Of The Lycans will satisfy only the most undiscerning Underworld fan; perhaps considering this film is a prequel to the previous films, we essentially know who’s going to live or die, which negates any tension the film has to offer.
With the current excitement by the teenage market for anything to do with vampires, especially in light of the enormously successful Twilight franchise, you’d be forgiven for thinking that perhaps Underworld: Rise of the Lycans has come along at just the right time. The original Underworld flick, directed by Len Wiseman and starring sexy as hell Kate Beckinsale, made moderate success in a film industry percolating with the buzz surrounding Harry Potter. Underworld 2, again directed by Wiseman and again starring Beckinsale, did better business, mainly due to the soft-core sex scene between her and her male co-star. The first two Underworld films were a complete entity in themselves, not giving any hint that a further sequel would be forthcoming… at least, not with the two stars involved.
So a second sequel, Rise Of The Lycans, was something of a bonus. Told as a prequel to the original two films, Rise had potential to flesh out the history of the war between Vampires and Lycans (the technical name for werewolves), perhaps even progress the story somewhat. Returning ancillary character from films 1 and 2, Lucian (Michael Sheen) was the focal point of this story, along with his involvement with the daughter of Viktor (Bill Nighy), a patriarch of the vampire world. Sonja (Rhona Mitra) and Lucien have an illicit relationship, something that doesn’t go down well with Viktor and the other vampires, considering that Lycans are seen as dirty dogs by the blood suckers. Sonja’s insistence that the Lycans no longer be persecuted as slaves by the Vampires is, at the time this film is set, quite revolutionary, and something that Viktor will fight against forever. Genetic engineering has forced the Lycans to evolve, a sub-slave race that the Vampires control through brutal physical tactics.
Rise of The Lycans isn’t the most intelligent story ever told, and by comparison to the previous Underworld features, it’s a little limp in it’s narrative tension. The film bounces scenes between the Lycan’s prison, the Vampire throne room, and the New Zealand forest the film was shot in. Poor Lucian seems to spend most of his time being caught, escaping, and being caught again. Sonja, who spends most of the time not being a Vampire at all, is all talk and no action, which is a shame, because I’d like to have seen her throw down with Viktor in a ballsy battle of strength. In any case, the dialogue and action sequences are easily overlooked in favour of style.
Michael Sheen grimaces his way through a performance bereft of consequence and filled with bedraggled hair; his long locks seem to be the focus of Tatopolous’ camerawork, as does the lovely figure of Rhona Mitra, again proving that she looks magnificent in a body-hugging period outfit. Sheen, who appeared in Frost/Nixon and seemed miles away from another Underworld, obviously relishes the chance to return to this role, even if he knows it’s perhaps not as critic-friendly as some of his more serious films. Mitra, on the other hand, can appear in whatever she wants. I’ve had a man-crush on her since I first saw her in the lamentable Christopher Lambert version of Beowulf. To me, she’s critic-proof.
Rise Of The Lycans would be less of a film without Bill Nighy’s crackling portrayal of Viktor, all grey glowing eyes and spittle-flecked diatribes hurtling through the air. Nighy owns this film, his towering performance a far cry from the comedy-lite stuff he’s done in projects like Love Actually or The Boat That Rocked. Viktor is a falling king, a power hungry Vampire who can’t see that his world is collapsing, his power is waning, as the Lycans begin to take charge, and his coven seems on the brink of collapse. Internal squabbling divert his attention from the real matter at hand, and he seems incapable or unwilling to really step up and fix the problem: his love for daughter Sonja hamstrings his ability to really control things. Nighy takes the previous film’s Viktor and turns him into an actual character, rather than simply a vessel for evil. This, of all the things to take place in Rise Of The Lycans, is perhaps the best of the lot.
As with any prequel to a successful film (or film franchise), the main problem encountered is the matter of foreknowledge hamstringing story development to the film’s detriment. That is, considering we know what happens in the future (ie, the first two Underworld films), it relegates the story of Lucian and Viktor, and to a lesser degree Sonja, to a tension-free outcome. We know Lucien will survive this film, so any moment he’s in jeopardy is lessened in impact by this fact. He can’t die. Viktor, also, is hampered by events to come, and anything that happens to him here will be limited to his appearance and known history in the original films. George Lucas learned this with his Star Wars prequels, and now fans of the Underworld franchise know it too. It’s a major problem with prequels, and aside from JJ Abrams recent Star Trek effort, there’s very few examples to counter this argument.
Patrick Tatopolous has crafted a well honed homage to Len Wiseman’s original duo of films; both colour scheme and tonally Rise Of The Lycans fits in well to the established world. The action is plentiful, albeit too brief and without impact. Key moments at the end of the film come as a surprise, although the motivations and logic behind them are a little wobbly. Overall, though, if you go into this film with an open mind and a knowledge of the previous ones, you’ll appreciate and enjoy this movie wholeheartedly. Non fans won’t get it, and all the sturm und drang wont save it from critical mauling: rightfully so, the script is diabolical.