Saturday, January 24, 2009

“Lycans” Does Vampires vs. Werewolves Justice

When Kate Beckinsale decided to hang up her skin tight costume and faux vampire teeth, the studio had but one logical choice for a third film in the “Underworld” series: A prequel. Whether a prequel to the centuries-old feud between vampires and werewolves is what fans wanted or if it was even necessary is beyond argument at this point.

“Underworld: Rise of the Lycans” is an origins story that focuses on how former slave to a legion of vampires, Lucian (Michael Sheen), becomes leader of a powerful race of werewolves in an uprising against vampire leader Viktor (Bill Nighy). The film details how the long running war between the two groups in the first “Underworld” film came to be.

With the departure of Beckinsale also came the departure of her husband and director of the first two films in the series, Len Wiseman. Promoted to his spot is Patrick Tatopoulos, a man who knows monsters. Tatopoulos worked as creature designer on the two previous “Underworld” films as well as in other recent genre films such as “I Am Legend” and “Silent Hill”. “Lycans” is Tatopoulos’ feature length debut and it is a commendable effort.

Although both the lead actress and director are gone, not much else has changed. Given expanded and elevated roles are Bill Nighy and Michael Sheen. Sheen, fresh off his terrific performance in the Oscar nominated film “Frost/Nixon”, returns as Lucian, would be leader of the Lycans. Rather than going head on with Richard Nixon, Sheen’s character faces off with the equally sinister Viktor, king of the vampires. Both actors hold their own and do a lot for the film emotionally when it needs it the most.

Stylistically “Lycans” matches the feel of the first two films. The sets are lavishly gothic and the tone is dark. Where the film takes a drop is in the special effects department. From time to time a few of the deaths look poorly done and sloppy. A little more attention could have been given. The action sequences are filmed using the ever-popular and increasingly annoying hyper-edit technique. “Lycans” is not even close to being the number one offender of using this new Achilles’ heel of action films but it is still present. That said, the action scenes are, more often than not, impressive and entertaining.

There is nothing exactly wrong with the plot of “Lycans” but it did feel a bit conventional. It draws slightly from the realm of Shakespeare with a kind of forbidden relationship between two members of different families. These families just happen to be vampires and werewolves. What the film does do well is let the viewer see both sides of the story. This should lead to new experiences when watching both the first and second films again.

Being vampires and werewolves, the film has the feel of a big budget B-movie, complete with the campy visuals and dialogue. This, of course, isn’t a bad thing if appreciative of this style of filmmaking. Heading into the film expecting a mindless battle between vampires and werewolves will result in the best experience. Expect anything else and it’ll be a sorely disappointing time.

“Lycans” is a far from perfect adventure into the “Underworld” universe. Regardless, the film is an entertaining experience. It does a good job of setting up the first film meaning fans of the series should be pleased. Most of the acting is far better than it should be for a film of this type. Sheen and Nighy, along with new leading lady Rhona Mitra and Kevin Grevioux’s return as Raze, elevate the film’s rather typical story and get its juices flowing.

After spending so much time sifting through this season’s Oscar nominated films, it was nice to shut off the old brain for a bit. “Underworld: Rise of the Lycans” is a lot better than we’re typically treated to in month of January. Monster fans, be pleased.

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