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Endurance Test Theater presents: ‘Underworld: Rise of the Lycans’

February 4, 2010

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, 2009

Director: Patrick Tatopoulos

Screenplay by: Danny McBride, (the awesomely named) Dirk Blackman and Howard McCain, based on a story by McBride, Len Wiseman and Robert Orr

Starring Michael “no relation to Martin” Sheen, Bill Nighy, Rhona Mitra, Steven Mackintosh, Kevin Grevioux and David Aston

Back in 2008, I took on a writing endeavor in my personal blog called ‘Project Vamp Flick.’ Inspired by Netflix’s ‘Watch Instantly’ service, as well as the revival of the vampire craze, my intent was to watch and write reviews of vampire movies, both good and bad, mostly for the entertainment of my readers but also with the intent of eventually getting a book deal, which, let’s face it, is pretty much the main reason anybody does anything on the internet these days.

It became quickly apparent that I was biting off far more than I could chew. For one thing, Netflix adds dozen of movies to its ‘Watch Instantly’ queue every week. I was updating my own list with films at a far faster rate than I was watching them, rendering the whole thing, in essence, a project that would have no end. Also, I hadn’t thought out my plan very well. I intended on watching the movies in order, with those I had already seen before first, then from highest to lowest rated. This meant that while in the beginning I was able to watch some genuine gems like Let the Right One In, eventually I’d be stuck having to watch shit like Bloodsucking Redneck Vampires. Because the vast majority of vampire movies are mediocre to just plain terrible, it wasn’t long before I watched all the good ones, with literally dozens of piles of dreck still ahead. What started as a fun diversion now seemed like a disheartening chore. I let the project lapse for over six months because I just couldn’t bring myself to watch The Lost Boys 2. Eventually it was made no longer available as a ‘watch instantly’ choice, which offered some relief, until I saw that next on the list was something called Horror of the Blood Monster. In the end, I pretty much lost interest in the project altogether.

As part of Project Vamp Flick I reviewed Underworld: Evolution, the sequel to the surprise hit Underworld. In the review, I made mention of having seen the first movie in the theater, yet I couldn’t remember a single relevant thing about it, except that it had something to do with vampires and werewolves, and Kate Beckinsale in skintight fetish wear, all things you could have gleaned from the previews. I remember entering the theater, I remember leaving the theater afterwards, I even remember who I went with, but as far as the movie itself was concerned I might as well have been watching a blank screen for an hour and a half, that was how little an impression it made on me. The second movie didn’t fare much better; though it did remind me of what I had found so silly about the first one, that the whole thing seemed to be based upon the type of idea usually borne in pot smoke filled dorm rooms–what would happen if vampires fought their enemies with guns and technology, but mostly guns? Wouldn’t that be cool​? Well, not really, they’re vampires, why would they need to? They’re supposed to be super-strong and impervious to everything except sunlight, holy water and stakes, you’d think they’d be fighting their enemies with those long fucking teeth and claws. That would be cool.

Supposedly the fans of the Underworld series demanded a prequel, which is interesting because I didn’t know it had any fans. Nevertheless, someone wanted to know the origins of the feud between “Death Dealers” (a.k.a. vampires) and Lycans (you know them better as werewolves), getting to the bottom of all the nonsense about bloodlines and clans and elders, in a plot that manages to be both unnecessarily complicated and profoundly stupid. Len Wiseman, the director of the first two movies, as well as their star, Kate Beckinsale, wisely chose to sit this one out, replaced by special effects designer Patrick Tatopoulos and Rhona Mitra. Mitra looks and sounds exactly like Beckinsale, and even sports tight leather pants at one point, even though the movie takes place in some vague medieval-era setting. What’s slightly confusing is that she isn’t actually playing Beckinsale’s part, but rather a whole new character, Sonja, rebellious daughter of Viktor (Bill Nighy, reprising his role from the earlier films), leader of the “Death Dealer” clan.

The origin of the Lycans stems from Lucian (Michael Sheen, also reprising his role from the earlier films despite starring in quality movies like The Queen and Frost/Nixon between them), a werewolf who has the rare ability to change from human to wolf and back again at will. Viktor discovers Lucian as an infant and spares him his life, only to raise him in indentured servitude, eventually creating more Lycans to keep as slaves, which seems ill-advised, considering they all seem to be aggressive and uncooperative, two qualities you really don’t want in a slave. You can easily tell the difference between the Death Dealers and the Lycans: the Death Dealers are dour and pale, and they all dress like it’s Peter Murphy Night at the Roxy, while the Lycans are dirty, sweaty and enjoy showing off their ample chest hair.

Sonja sneers at Lucian in the presence of her father, but in secret they’re totally doin’ it, and trying desperately to figure out a way where they can be together forever. So you wondered what really started the centuries long conflict between Lycans and Death Dealers, thinking perhaps it was a land war or some non-specific power struggle? No, it’s just the typical, predictable “Romeo and Juliet” love story. You may be surprised and disappointed to discover that “Romeo and Juliet, but with werewolves and vampires” doesn’t turn out to be nearly as cool as it sounds. Viktor imprisons Lucian for disobeying him, and when he learns that he and Sonja are not only getting it on, but that she’s pregnant with a little werepire baby, he orders them both put to death. Though Sonja doesn’t manage to escape her fate, Lucian does, declaring war between his newly formed band of Lycans and Viktor’s Death Dealers, and thus a dull, derivative film series is born.

That’s pretty much the entire plot of Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, in easy to read format with no big words, not that it’s hard to figure out what’s going to happen. Having presumably seen the earlier movies, you already know going in that both Viktor and Lucian are going to survive (even though Viktor gets a sword run right through his head), and Sonja might as well have DEAD MEAT written on her forehead in Sharpie. Does it add anything to the storyline of the series overall? Not really, and that’s my main problem with Underworld: Rise of the Lycans. It’s not that it’s good or bad, it’s that it’s entirely unnecessary. I could give a high holy shit about why the Death Dealers and Lycans hate each other, or all that horseshit from the earlier films about first vampires and second werewolves or whatever. “Origin” stories aren’t worth the celluloid they’re filmed on if the characters and their motivations are sketchy and uninteresting to begin with.

Though Bill Nighy gives an admirably hammy performance, all but spitting his lines at his c0-stars, it’s just not enough to make the vampires compelling. They seem to do little more than argue amongst themselves in a “Council” whose purpose is never fully explained, mostly about protecting the nobles, land interests and how to hold back the hirsute menace of the Lycans. They’re bitchy, they seem to die rather easily and they’re lousy fighters. They never once use, oh, I don’t know, being fucking vampires to defend themselves, instead relying on swords and crossbows. What fun is that? Then again, there are scenes in which Lucian’s ability to turn into a werewolf at will would have come in really handy, but he seems to forget he has it, such as when he watches Sonja as she’s executed. Up to this point he was able to kill people with his bare hands, survive several story falls and numerous arrows in his back (in fact he’s shot so many times with arrows that he should look like a damn pincushion by the end), but a couple of mere chains attached to his wrists manage to stop him from saving the life of his beloved. Why? Because the script declared it, that’s why.

Long stretches of “Jesus H. Christ this is boring” scenes of scheming, overheated dialogue, sneering and knowing looks, are occasionally broken up with fight scenes, but even those aren’t all that exciting, mainly because we’ve seen it all so many times before. It’s like the filmmakers went down a checklist: the Matrix-style slow motion jumps, the 300-style blood jetting out of wounds in scarlet beads, the Braveheart-style frenetic editing. Even the final, meant to be epic clash between Death Dealers and Lycans is merely a ripoff of the far more epic battle of Helm’s Deep. There’s even a Wilhelm scream. There is not a single scene in this movie that hasn’t been done before, and better, by other movies. It’s all set against the same murky, blue-black palette of the earlier movies, presumably so the CGI effects would blend in more seamlessly, and it’s all very fucking grim and serious. That’s another reason why the Underworld series has always left me cold, its complete and utter lack of humor. The first movie had werewolves shooting at vampires with bullets that were literally made out of sunshine, how they could possibly not have allowed a little levity into the situation? But alas, there is no levity, no fun to be found, and the least you can expect from “Romeo and Juliet, but with werewolves and vampires” is that it be fun.

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