Monday, November 21, 2011

Romeo & Juliet And Spartacus For Vampires And Werewolves: Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans Works!

The Good: Interesting plot and character elements, Decent special effects
The Bad: Nothing superlative in the acting, Last third of the movie drags some.
The Basics: Decent and actually fairly exciting, Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans tells a decent story for two-thirds of the film!

Some years ago, a film came out that my wife at the time was quite eager to see. It was Underworld (reviewed here!) and when the movie was over, we both left disappointed. My partner was disappointed because all of the best shots had been in the previews and promotional spots, I felt cheated because all of the established tenants of the Underworld universe that were laid out in the first five minutes of the film were undone by the end of the flick. I felt that they either shouldn't have been put in such absolute terms or the writers and producers ought to have stretched the reversals out over three or four movies (or in a television series, two to three seasons).

Either way, I had been so unimpressed and letdown by the first Underworld, that I did not bother to see Underworld: Evolution and under normal circumstances I probably would not have taken in the new prequel, Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans. Fortunately, to stay competitive as a reviewer and give myself the greatest possible reviewer's lens, I found a screening of this latest installment and took it in. Actually, I am glad that I did: Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans has enough decent elements to it to be a worthwhile and largely enjoyable fantasy/horror film.

Twenty years after the development of vampires and werewolves - immortal creatures that suck blood and are wolfmen, respectively - the Vampire overlord, Viktor, has raised an army of vampires. They rule over the local state collecting tribute from the humans. Viktor, in the meantime, has managed to develop a werewolf that assumes human form most of the time and from that child, Lucien, Viktor creates a slave workforce of human-werewolves. The vampire coven is protected during the day by their werewolf slaves and Lucien treats the inhuman werewolves of the forest - who have begun terrorizing the local humans fairly constantly to undermine the vampires - as if they were mindless animals.

But after a pretty close call in which Viktor's daughter, Sonya, is almost killed by werewolves, Lucien and Sonya find they have a passion for one another that is real and that they actualize. Willful by nature, Sonya's affair manages to go unnoticed by all but one vampire, an ambitious politician who wants Sonya's seat on the advisory council. When Viktor learns of Sonya and Lucien's betrayals - necessitated by Lucien saving Sonya's life in the forest by removing his enchanted collar and transforming into his wolf form to call off the werewolves - he orders death all around. But Lucien has different plans and fighting for his love and his very life leads him to organize his enslaved werewolves to try to overthrow their cruel vampire overlords.

Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans is a surprisingly solid film in the first two-thirds. As the story evolves from a Romeo & Juliet style love story of forbidden love between a vampire and a werewolf, into more of Lucien's Spartacus-style slave uprising tale, the film ventures into territory a little too familiar. In fact, it is rare that I advocate less of a film, but the last third of the movie were almost entirely unnecessary; there was only, truly, one way for the story to go, especially with the title "Rise Of The Lycans!" What is utterly unnecessary are the last thirty seconds of the movie; it serves no purpose, save to tie the end of this film back to the original "Underworld." This would have worked much, much better as an after-credits scene (there was none, by the way).

So, this film works best when it is more engaged in the love story or the preachy "let's rise up against our oppressors" phases of the film. Sadly, the last third of the movie is a pretty direct war/attack story and "story" is used pretty loosely here. Instead, it is a long sequence of violent and bloody encounters between everyone still standing at the time as the werewolves and vampires simply duke it out for freedom and supremacy.

Lucien actually becomes a rather interesting character in this installment. He is charismatic and he seems to have a genuine love for Sonya. In addition, Michael Sheen and Rhona Mitra, who play Lucien and Sonya, respectively, have great on-screen chemistry. They play off one another quite well and the passion their characters are supposed to have bubbling beneath the surface is perfectly played by both. And when they are allowed to be overtly passionate, the actors rise to the occasion quite well.

Rhona Mitra, who might be best known for her role in the first season of Boston Legal (reviewed here!) and for serving as the body template for the vastly popular Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider video games, illustrates a decent amount of emotional range as the disobedient and passionate Sonya. Usually cast in more reserved roles, she plays Sonya as smart, feisty and strong in a way that I have not seen her used before.

In fact, the only gripe surrounding Rhona Mitra would have to be in the effects department. While the computer generated special effects seem pretty decent, the make-up special effects are far from it. So, for example, Rhona Mitra appears nowhere near as pale in most scenes as the other vampires and within some scenes her eyes change from her natural brown to the bright blue contacts that are constantly used to illustrate Viktor's vampirism. There is nothing consistent about when her eyes are blue or when they are brown, but the fact that she is fairly tanned in some scenes is truly disturbing.

Viktor is a decent villain, though he becomes steadily more monolithic as the film progresses, which is disappointing because at the outset of the film, he seems to have some depth to him. He is played by the masterful Bill Nighy who is appropriately menacing in the role and looks great in all but a single scene as the vampire lord. Nighy plays within his extensive emotional range so it is no surprise that he does so well in the movie.

Perhaps the real surprise is just how well actor Michael Sheen holds together Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans. Arguably, in the past all that seemed to be truly required of Sheen was to show up and look good bare-chested. But in this movie, he is given the brunt of the emotional work and the greatest amount of screentime. Rise Of The Lycans is Lucien's emotional journey to love and step out from the shadow of the parent figure (Viktor). Sheen carries the varied moments well, playing an actual journey for his character and as he rises from feeling like a helpless slave to a leader of men (or werewolves), Sheen alters the character's posture and vocal tones.

At the end of the night, Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans is good entertainment, but the last third of the film rob it of the ability to be considered anything more. It earns its "R" rating with pretty extensive violence between the werewolves and vampires - lots of beheaded wolves and the like - but it is nothing particularly surprising and does not feel like much more than a comic book set to motion.

And for fans of fantasy/horror or science fiction/fantasy, this film lives up to more of the potential that the advertisements for Underworld represented. Finally.

For other works with vampires, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
True Blood - Season 3
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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