Third Underworld can’t cash in on full-moon fever
Have you heard? The year of the werewolf is upon us. Between a new, hirsute Twilight film and an upcoming remake of The Wolfman, moviegoers are in for some serious howling over the next few months. The next cultural trend begins with a whimper in Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, the most inessential series continuation since Teen Wolf Too. The truest thing I can say about it: If you think you’d enjoy Rise of the Lycans, you almost certainly will. There are vampires, werewolves (though sadly, no zombies) and a heapin’ helpin’ of dumb. This is either entertaining to you, or it is not, so believe me when I tell you that whatever your expectations are, this film will meet them. Taking place a few hundred years before the original, Lycans sets out to explain the beginnings of the perpetual war between werewolves and vampires. Unsurprisingly, it is sparked by head vamp Viktor (Bill Nighy), who gets the wise idea to breed Lycans as servants (“Lycan,” by the way, is the film’s wholly unnecessary term for werewolves. Really, why not just call them werewolves?). Inevitably they get tired of living under the thumb of their pale, effete masters and a rebellion swells around Lucien (Michael Sheen), the wolves’ de facto leader who also happens to be carrying on a secret love affair with Viktor’s daughter Sonja (Rhona Mitra). Let’s be frank: What you want here is a few knock-down dragout monster battles. What you’ll get instead: A heavyhanded metaphor for racial injustice that manages to make the film pretentious as well as incomparably silly.
It progresses as you might expect. The Lycans cast off their shackles, literally and figuratively. Viktor discovers his daughter’s indiscretion. The Underworld is thrown into chaos when the wolves lay siege to the vampire stronghold. Really, once you have the pieces in place, the film basically writes itself (though, somewhat incredibly, Lycans boasts no fewer than five writers between its script and its story). I’ll admit that I kind of enjoyed the first Underworld movie as a piece of brainless, empty escapism, but did anyone really want to learn more about the mythology of this universe? Maybe I underestimate the amount of Underworld fanfic out there, but it appears the studio, at least in part, agrees with me, as the film has a kind of straight to-DVD quality about it. Stars Bill Nighy and Michael Sheen have returned, but series poster girl Kate Beckinsdale only pops in for a cameo, which seems to consist entirely of footage from the first film. The role of butt-kicking shevampire is filled by Beckinsdale lookalike Mitra, who is just as good and half as famous.
Also, directing detail has been shuffled off from Len Wiseman, who helmed the first two, to newcomer Patrick Tatopoulos. In fairness, he doesn’t have enormous shoes to fill, and he captures the series’ trademark blue glow and incoherent action sequences just fine. Indeed, Underworld and its sequel were never much fun to look at, and neither is the latest. The action unfolds largely in the shadows, to mask the pretty obvious imperfections in the CGI, and the combination of darkness and shaky camera work makes the best parts virtually inscrutable. There’s not much in this muddy mess to recommend it, though I will say that, because it takes place hundreds of years in the past, the Matrix-style gunplay is mercifully absent from this installment. What’s left, however, is a boilerplate medieval melodrama, full of chain mail and clanging swords, with a little Romeo and Juliet thrown in. The supernatural element is almost incidental. It’s a bland beginning for a bland franchise, one best left to Underworld’s dozens of die-hard fans.