Saturday, May 5, 2012

Just Enough Fun With The Epic Monsters: The Razor Decision on Van Helsing

The Good: Fun, Just enough in the way of character, acting and plot to sell it.
The Bad: Outrageous special effects, Weak character, plot and acting.
The Basics: In an average film, over-the-top special effects take a movie that could be interesting and make it into a virtual circus of monster slaying.

In my stack of reading material, I have three Batman graphic novels, the Knightfall series (book one is reviewed here!) to be precise. I finally picked them up after years of debate because I liked the basic concept. As I understand it, the idea behind Knightfall is that all of Batman's enemies escape from Arkham Asylum and he has to get them all back in. The opening to Van Helsing, which contains Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, and Mr. Hyde has the feel of that type of story.

Employed by Rome to save the souls of those who have become undead or otherwise corrupted by evil, Van Helsing, a mysterious hunter is sent to save the last heirs of the Valerious family. This means protecting Anna Valerious from a small army of flying female vampires and Count Dracula. Dracula, for his part, is preoccupied with raising an army of unborn vampires he has been trying unsuccessfully to keep from flying apart. As Dracula and Van Helsing come closer to encountering one another, the secrets of Van Helsing's lost memories become more and more important.

Van Helsing is not highbrow material. It's not a fabulous movie. But it fits the bill for entertaining the viewer just enough to recommend (it's an incredibly close one, though). The most disconcerting aspect of it that prevents it from being more than entertainment are the special effects. I can deal with a movie that has nonstop action, but the special effects in Van Helsing create a frantic quality that is disconcerting for a live-action movie. Much the way the animated Clone Wars series (volume 1 reviewed here!) did not feel like Star Wars, many of the effects in Van Helsing are so big, fast and extreme as to lose any sense of connection with reality, including the reality established in this movie. As the old saying goes, once you establish the rules of your world, you can't break them. Van Helsing becomes a comic book with the extremity of the special effects.

That said, the movie makes at least passing attempts to create characters that are interesting. The Frankenstein monster, for example, is fairly articulate and simply wants the right to exist. Van Helsing has a desire to learn his personal history, which is missing from his memory. Even Carl, Van Helsing's friar sidekick is motivated to meet women, fight evil and aid his friend. In fact, by motivating Dracula with the desire to allow his spawn to survive and be born healthy, he becomes somewhat understandable, if not likable.

Beyond that, the movie's characters are fairly obviously constructed "types." Anna Valerious is strong-woman, potential love interest heroine. Van Helsing is hero and despite his quirks, Dracula is simply Villain. Carl is sidekick and all of the female vampires that fly around are simply lackeys of Dracula.

The plot is equally uncomplex. Despite the addition of such random elements as the Frankenstein monster and the concept of Dracula's obsession with werewolves, this is essentially a hero seeks out the villain with intent to destroy. Van Helsing is hunting down Dracula to do justice to the cause of good by killing evil. To that end, the movie follows a fairly linear narrative as Van Helsing closes in on Dracula.

Dracula is ably played by Richard Roxburgh who smartly does not attempt to recreate the quiet creepiness of Bela Lugosi. Instead, Roxburgh plays Dracula as extroverted and quirky, with a certain ambiguous sexuality that makes him more unpredictable. Similarly, despite the loads of make-up, Shuler Hensley does a fine job of bringing character and humanity to the Frankenstein monster.

Actor David Wenham plays Carl and he is instantly recognizable to genre fans from his role as Faramir in the latter two The Lord Of The Rings films. Here he is given the chance to play humor and is granted a good amount of screentime, which he does not waste. Instead, Wenham makes such a distinctive role that one cannot imagine Van Helsing unaccompanied. Kate Beckinsale does fine as Anna. The truth is, she is not given much to do but run around fighting things and looking good in a corset, which she pulls off quite adequately.

Much of the movie hinges on the credibility of Hugh Jackman as Van Helsing. Jackman is a competent actor, but the role of Van Helsing does not give him much room to stretch his acting muscles. He is like Wolverine here without the sense of wry humor. In short, if you've seen any of the X-Men movies, you've essentially seen Jackman's performance as Van Helsing. It's a lot of running, jumping and shooting things. He does fine at that. I suppose, though, we have the right to wish for more from him and the movie.

At the end of the day, this movie is not going to set the world on fire (it didn't when it was released in theaters or on DVD). What it will do is entertain the viewer who is looking at it for a quick escape from our reality for just a little bit of fun. On that, it measures up.

For other works with David Wenham, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Married Life
Dark City


For other film reviews, please be sure to visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the movie reviews I have written!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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