I didn’t care much for the first two Underworld films, Len Wiseman’s stylish but inexplicably dull vampires vs. werewolves flicks that seemed to focus more on vampiric and lycanthropic politics than giving us what we might expect from a vampires vs. werewolves movie.
Forgive me for not expecting much from Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, a prequel that examines the beginning of the centuries-old conflict, minus Kate Beckinsale and her skin-tight leather getup, one of the few redeeming factors of the first two films. I was stunned, then, to find myself mostly enjoying Rise of the Lycans, a cheesy but fun vampires & werewolves (here called Lycans, if you hadn’t guessed) mini-epic that finally delivers on the promise of its premise.
It’s directed by Patrick Tatopoulos, the special effects whiz who designed the creatures in the original films (as well as the aliens in Independence Day and Godzilla in Emmerich’s Godzilla), and while I can’t say his direction here is always effective, the conception of this film, easily the best in the Underworld series, is perfect.
Set some undisclosed centuries ago, Bill Nighy stars as vampire king Viktor, who rules over a mountaintop castle settlement of vampires. They’ve enslaved the poor lycan community, forcing them to work as slave labor with spiked collars that prevent them from morphing, while their werewolf brethren (beasts that cannot turn back to human form) roam the countryside.
Lycan Lucian (Michael Sheen), the first of his kind, is sleeping with the Viktor’s daughter Sonja (Rhona Mitra) – the greatest of sins, and a plot device as old as Romeo and Juliet. Lucian and Sonja are punished for their sins, and Lucian leads the titular Lycan revolt against their oppressors; plot, in other words, is nice and simple.
There’s a really brazen and unexpected third-act development that surprised me, though it was foreshadowed in the earlier films, as a brief Kate Beckinsale voiceover flashback at the end informs us. Sheen, who returns from smaller roles in the earlier films, is entirely effective as the Lycan leader, though it is a bit strange to see him in the role after his successes as Tony Blair in The Queen and David Frost in Frost/Nixon.
The Lucian character is made out to be a Christ-like figure, which includes two Passion of the Christ-like whipping scenes that verge into parody. Nighy devours the scenery every time he’s on the screen, which is a good portion of the movie.
The werewolf design here is a particular improvement over the first Underworld movies, which were heavy on CGI slickness. The creatures are still, I think, entirely CGI, but they’ve been modeled after the retro werewolves in 80’s films like The Howling and An American Werewolf in London.
Film also features two undeniable flaws: it’s so dark, literally, that we can barely see what’s going on in any given scene (the vampires live in perennial darkness, but couldn’t we get a little light from the torches?), and every action sequence is so haphazardly edited and choreographed we never get a handle on what is happening.
Each fight scene is a blur of slit throats and severed werewolf appendages that doesn’t let the audience get invested in the action. While general audiences will want to stay away, and I’m not too sure Underworld fans will be satisfied, Rise of the Lycans is the Aliens vs Predator Requiem of the Underworld flicks.
Not that Aliens vs Predator Requiem should be pointed to as a pinnacle of cinematic achievement, but it is a film that delivered the titular goods after its predecessor had failed. If you’d ever be interested in seeing a film titled Vampires vs Werewolves, Underworld: Rise of Lycans is about as close as you’re gonna get.