29 July 2009

Movie review: Underworld: Rise of the Lycans

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (2009)
Directed by Patrick Tatopoulos. Starring Bill Nighy, Michael Sheen, Rhona Mitra.

In Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, you get to see Tony Blair transform into a werewolf.

Actually, you get to see British actor Michael Sheen, who played Tony Blair in The Queen, transform into a werewolf. Yes, he appeared in the two earlier “Underworld” films, but he wasn’t yet then Michael Sheen the Respected Actor Who Played Tony Blair (and David Frost) and Whom the Academy Awards Seem to Be Ignoring. If seeing a muscled, long-haired, furry-chested Tony Blair going ultra-wolf and tearing out throats amuses you, by all means you will enjoy Rise of the Lycans.

I’ve never had much interest in seeing the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom do such a thing, but I still enjoyed the movie. In fact, I think it’s the best of the trilogy of “Underworld” flicks, although this isn’t a stunning claim since I thought Underworld was merely okay and Underworld: Evolution lame. But the new film goes into prequel mode and pulls the story of vamps vs. weres back to the Middle Ages, and thus dumps the modern Gothic posing for genuine dark fantasy sword-and-sorcery goodness. That’s seasoning to my tastes. To the people who hatched the prequel idea, I thank ye.

The Middle Ages in the “Underworld” are as much a fantasy world as the modern ages, taking place in a no-where and no-when, although with a resemblance in style to a mix of the early Anglo Saxons with the medieval Slavs. Try to imagine Anglo-Saxon raiders invading and taking over twelfth century-Slovakia and you might get close. As a design, it looks superb; all the Gothic designs of the first two films make sense here, where nobody drives a truck or pulls out a pistol. It’s also the goriest of the three films because of the setting: long sharp pointy metal things make a much bigger mess than bullets.

The story isn’t far different from the earlier (or later, chronologically speaking) movies, with a war between vampires and werewolves, and a cross-species romance at the core. The werewolves are against called “Lycans,” but the hell with that. No reason to invent a name for something that already has a perfectly good one. I’m surprised in the original Underworld that the vampires weren’t re-named “Sanguions” or something equally silly. Vampire lord Viktor (again played by Bill Nighy) has enslaved the werewolves and breeds more of them as a military force, but keeps one elite member close to the throne, Lucian (Tony Blair/David Frost), the first of these beast to find his way to human form. However, Viktor’s daughter Sonja (Rhona Mitra) is grinding hips with the occasionally hairy fellow—and she’s going to need to keep that from dear ol’ Dad.

The story moves in a straight line: you know a werewolf uprising is coming, and you wonder how the vampires are so ignorant of it. In fact, it’s a wonder the vampires were ever effective against the werewolves, who just rip them to shreds here. This always bothered me about the first two Underworlds: the werewolves should have had the constant upper hand. I’m biased because werewolves are my favorite of the classic movie monsters, and vampires are so overexposed right now that it’s a surprise the whole race hasn’t turned to dust and shriveled away. The werewolves get to carve up the bloodsuckers in a big way in Rise of the Lycans, culminating in a massive battle assault on Vincent’s fortress that is the most exciting sequence to come out of the trilogy. It plays it a bit like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, but the previous two “Underworld” movies had already worked The Matrix into the bloody ground, so I’ll take the change.

The werewolves, at least in their wolf-forms, sit out most of the middle of movie, probably to save some money. As it’s a short film, this isn’t as dire as it sounds, and I always had Michael Sheen for drama or the unbelievably campy performance of Bill Nighy for amusement. And there’s Rhona Mitra to stare at, but that’s another tale entirely. Too bad she isn’t around more.

The effects are the best so far in the series, with some occasional werewolf CGI-clutziness. The full-motion werewolf suits look fantastic, and they get used a surprising amount for a mid-budget movie that would normally rely on computer effects whenever possible.

This is the first film in the series without director Len Wiseman, who has moved into co-writer and co-producer status. Instead, production designer Patrick Tatopolous makes his feature debut behind the camera. I have a bit of a bone to pick with Mr. Tatopolous over his design for the creature who appeared in the 1998 movie titled Godzilla. The creature is called Zilla and is mistaken for the real monster (this is actually the official Toho Studio stance as of the movie Godzilla: Final Wars). The years and more genuine Godzilla films have taken some of the edge off my anger… but I still recall the pain of first seeing that impostor back in ‘98, and it will never go away completely. However, Mr. Tatopolous, you did a good job here, so congratulations. I don’t know if it was your choice to let Bill Nighy go so completely bonkers with the madman glaring performance, but I enjoyed it in spite of itself.

I think this will probably be the end of the “Underworld” series—I don’t see any further ways Screen Gems can mine the franchise, and it was lowest grossing of all—but at least it leaves us at a high point, with swords and arrows and werewolves kicking blood-sucking butt. That’s how all film series should end.