The reasons, it turns out, are not dissimilar to what I faintly recall as the central conflict from the first film: a vampire named Sonja (Rhona Mitra) is in love with a lycan called Lucian (Michael Sheen). The backdrop for their affair is an unnamed and presumably European medieval land rather than an unnamed and presumably European city, though the color scheme remains the same, with everything seemingly lit by a grayish-blue moon.
In rural blueland, vampires hole up in an enormous castle and lord over the humans, employing lycans as slaves and as a security system against the wilder, permanently beastly werewolves. Lucian faithfully serves Sonja's father, head vampire Viktor (Bill Nighy), but this can't halt the onslaught of fantastical racism. The anti-lycan tyranny threatens to tear Sonja and Lucian apart, though not before some hilariously acrobatic tower-top sex.
Much of this was hinted at during scenes earlier in the franchise, in which vampire elders would burst through doors and initiate tedious, backstory-heavy conversations. That this backstory is now shown to us and, as such, cannot be discussed at length is key to the relative success of Rise of the Lycans, a tidy 90 minutes of vampire/werewolf skirmishes. (There are still a few meetings of the vampire council, which Sonja is chastised for skipping; even the characters seem aware of how boring these scenes are.)
The franchise trademarks -- portentous dialogue, pointless mythologizing, and wholesale cribbing from other stories -- remain, but dressed up in medieval armor and splattered with blood, they become surprisingly enjoyable, crossing the B-movie line from leaden over to almost zesty. In the first film, the vampire-werewolf conflict was inexplicably used as an excuse for gun-battles; here, the combat is more hands-on, teeming with beasts and maulings and gigantic mega-crossbows. Your inner or actual 14-year-old will love it. Speaking of which, I also like the way the full-on werewolves zoom through dirt tunnels a la Bugs Bunny.
In between and especially during the carnage, the British actors bite into their cheese with relish. Bill Nighy is a practiced and expected scene-stealer, but it's a special kick to watch Michael Sheen, so down-to-earth and effectively twerpish in Frost/Nixon and The Queen, turn into a credible action hero, fighting for lycan freedom and delivering at least half of his lines through clenched teeth. He's well-matched with Mitra, though Sonja's role eventually takes a turn for the passive, a slight disappointment following Kate Beckinsale's ass-kicking in the first two films. But she, like everyone else, gives the material more urgency than you might think necessary or even possible.
This includes the special effects gurus. The mixture of computer and practical effects are far from state-of-the-art yet reasonably convincing and, moreover, look neat whilst running and smashing into each other, perhaps owing to the director, Patrick Tatopoulos, having designed sets and creatures for a variety of horror and sci-fi movies. Despite the game performances and effects work, it would be misleading to describe Underworld: Rise of the Lycans as a well-crafted movie; it's derivative and silly, and still inescapably inessential. But on a cold day in late January, it's a lot of fun, too.
Not Kate Beckinsale. We checked.
Genre: Sci fi/Fantasy
Run time: 92 mins
In Theaters: Friday 23rd January 2009
Box Office USA: $45.8M
Box Office Worldwide: $91.3M
Distributed by: Sony Pictures/Screen Gems
Production compaines: Screen Gems, Lakeshore Entertainment, Sketch Films, UW3 Film Productions
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 29%
Fresh: 22 Rotten: 55
IMDB: 6.6 / 10
Director: Patrick Tatopoulos
Screenwriter: Danny McBride, Dirk Blackman, Howard McCain
Starring: Bill Nighy as Viktor, Michael Sheen as Lucian, Rhona Mitra as Sonja, Shane Brolly as Kraven, Steven Mackintosh as Andreas Tanis, Kevin Grevioux as Raze, David Aston as Coloman, Geraldine Brophy as Nobleman's Wife, Leighton Cardno as Fearful Lycan, Alexander Carroll as Young Lucian, Elizabeth Hawthorne as Orsova, Jason Hood as Death Dealer, Mark Mitchinson as Nobleman, Craig Parker as Sabas, Timothy Raby as Janosh, Tania Nolan as Luka, Kate Beckinsale as Selene
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