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Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (2009) Print E-mail
Thursday, 29 January 2009
ImageOK, I’ll admit it. I like the Underworld series. There’s something about vampire women in tight leather fighting and loving werewolves that I find satisfying. And Len Wiseman’s stylish (if derivative) gothic world was just interesting enough to keep me coming back for not one, but two sequels. Well, one sequel and a prequel. Sadly, and I really never thought I’d say this, Len Wiseman’s absence is the big failure of Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, the latest release in the series.

As detailed in the first film, werewolves (known as Lycans) and vampires are something like cousins, but they hate each other and each is fighting for dominance (of what is never established). The werewolves are led by Lucien (Michael Sheen), a powerful Lycan and master strategist. The vampires have a trio of elders that rule the covens, but by far the most powerful and influential of them is Viktor (Bill Nighy), a domineering and closed-minded man. Lucien recounts a tale of how he and his brethren were actually slaves, protecting Viktor’s stronghold during the daylight hours. However, when Lucien gets Viktor’s daughter (Rhona Mitra) pregnant, Viktor orders his daughter’s execution, prompting Lucien to stage a revolt.

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans details these events, switching the focus from Selene (Kate Beckinsale), the protagonist of the first two pictures. The first two movies were about a woman coming to understand the truth about her society and her place in it. Rise of the Lycans is a power struggle between two powerful men. At first, Lucien is a willing pet of Viktor’s, doing blacksmith work and watching over the other Lycans. As events unfold, he becomes increasingly disgruntled with his position in life, prompting him to escape and lead an insurrection.

Michael Sheen is just as charismatic as he was in the first film. It’s nice to see that even though he’s done much higher profile acting gigs (including this year’s best picture nominee, Frost/Nixon), he’s still willing to ham it up in genre flicks like this. Actually, that’s not entirely fair. Sheen is rarely hammy, playing Lucien as a generally sensitive man. So sensitive that he can feel the suffering of his fellows and responds in kind.  

Bill Nighy is, as always, perfection as Viktor, the heavy. Viktor has a larger role here, and thus provides Nighy with more opportunities to spread his acting wings. Yes, Viktor is still haughty and intolerant, but now he’s also capable of regret, even if he’s too proud to act on it. Nighy is one of those actors who should be much bigger than he is, as every character he plays is always highly memorable. The chance to see him in any role is always a pleasure, but he’s really made Viktor his own over the course of the three Underworld pictures.

Rhona Mitra, while very beautiful, is given very little to do. Her character is ostensibly a Death Dealer, an elite corps of vampires who specialize in killing werewolves, but every time she gets into combat she needs Lucien to save her. She’s mostly jockeyed about between Viktor and Lucien. She doesn’t have the presence that Kate Beckinsale possessed as Selene, and I can understand why the filmmakers chose to focus on the two men versus the woman this go around. Although in that respect it does make this film the most conventional of the three. Also, unfortunately, there are no skintight outfits for Ms. Mitra to wear. She gets by in frumpy medieval garb and heavy suits of armor. The sole love scene in the film is also quite disappointing.

Rise of the Lycans is easily the slightest of the three films. For one thing, we already know a truncated version of these events. For another, the film feels tiny in scope compared to the other two, especially Underworld Evolution. Whereas the first two movies had Eastern Europe to play around in, with all that wonderful architecture and snowy countryside, Rise of the Lycans gets a single location: Viktor’s stronghold. This consists of a main hall, a dungeon, and a courtyard. Then there’s the surrounding forest. All of the film takes place in these locations. Despite being shot in New Zealand, which offers a surplus of environments, Rise of the Lycans feels claustrophobic and one note.

Creature effects designer Patrick Tatopoulos graduates to the director’s seat for this flick, and he’s a noted step down from Len Wiseman. Wiseman may not be the most original director in the world (although there are a few sequences in Live Free or Die Hard that are genuinely thrilling), but he did have a certain sense of style and an eye for composition that Tatopolous does not. The action is dull and humdrum. Worse, many sequences are done through a series of quick fade outs, looking like a cheap straight-to-DVD movie.

There’s fun to be found here for ardent Underworld fans such as myself, but Rise of the Lycans is a significant step down from its predecessors, which already qualified as guilty pleasures. Bring back Len Wiseman, bring back Kate Beckinsale, get a new story going, and then we’ll have something cooking.

2.5 out of 5 Stars

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