Friday, January 23, 2009

"I should have crushed you under my heel" A Review of Underworld: Rise of the Lycans

If you're like me, you probably left the first two Underworld movies thinking “but how did it all begin? How did it get this way?” No? Okay, me neither, I honestly have only the vaguest memories of the first one, and I don't even remember if I saw the second one or not, but that's okay because this is a prequel, and stands well all on its own.

“Underworld: Rise of the Lycans” is the movie those kids who hang out in the gaming area at your local comic shop, no not the cheerful group playing D&D, the ones off in the corner who look like goths at a ren fair, yeah, the ones playing “Vampire the Masquerade”, this is the movie they would make. This movie is one long piece of dark broodiness punctuated with scenes of graphic violence, and if that sounds like your cup of tea, then this may be the film for you.

In the beginning the lycans were not as you know them, those infected with the curse were incapable of changing back to human form, and were little more than bloodthirsty animals being hunted by the vampires. This all changed with the birth of Lucien (Michael Sheen: “Frost/Nixon”, “The Queen”), a lycan with the ability to change forms. Viktor (Bill Nighy: “Shaun of the Dead”, “The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy”), the leader of the vampire coven, see this as an opportunity to breed immortal protectors who can guard the vampires during daylight hours.

What an opportunity, right? The vampires and lycans could join forces for the betterment of them all! Nope. These new shape-shifting lycans are enslaved; forced to wear restraining collars that keep them from turning into their wolf forms and do heavy labour. Just in case the slave imagery is lost on you, they make sure to even include two scenes where Lucien gets whipped a la “Roots”

So, being the first of a new breed of lycan, what does Lucien do? That's right, he of course falls in love with Viktor's rebellious daughter, Sonja (Rhona Mitra: “Boston Legal”, “The Practice”), and of course Sonja falls for Lucien as well. They somehow manage to keep this mostly a secret until Lucien reveals that he has a key to his collar when he doffs it to save Sonja from a pack of feral lycans.

Of course, upon discovering that his daughter is in love with an ethnic minority... er, a lycan, Viktor realizes the error of his ways, and embraces the lycan with open arms, right? You don't even need to have seen the previous films to know how that's going to go.

Watching this film I could not help but try and guess what other things inspired it. There is of course the “Vampire the Masquerade” role-playing games. “The Lord of the Rings” movies are present an accounted for a long with some “Robin Hood” (Raze is very much Lucien's Little John). The fighting style of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, the slavery content of “Roots”, the romance of “Romeo and Juliet”, and the werewolf transformation of “An American Werewolf in London” all also make appearances. How much this may bother you will depend how much originality you expected to begin with.

The film has a fairly strong cast, but the dialog is frequently weak and predictable; I was able at many points during the film to predict what the next lines were going to be. Bill Nighy's Viktor sometimes comes off as more satire than threatening villain due to the words coming out of his mouth as he stalks around the scenes, but given the actor's abilities it is possible that this is intentional.

I found it almost impossible to take Lucien seriously, Michael Sheen's huge expressive eyes and long straggly hair made me think of Bill Bailey's portrayal of Manny Bianco in “Black Books”. I found this idea to be so powerful that at one point, where Lucien has just transformed back into a human after ripping someone's throat out and is howling with blood dripping from his mouth, I could not help but laugh out loud.

Aside from my personal visions of a sword wielding Bill Bailey, some of the movie's inconsistencies puzzled me too. It seems that Lucien can change into wolf form (as long as his collar is off) whenever he wants, yet in one pivotal scene where it would very much be to his benefit to change, he has to wait for the moon to come out. Another inconsistency is Sonja's eyes; sometimes they glow blue similar to Viktor's, but other times they are just normal eyes. Is there some special rule about glowing eyes, or did someone simply forget to make sure Mitra put the contacts in?

This movie's strengths are clearly the fights and effects. The battle scenes are wonderfully choreographed affairs blending live actors, animatronics, and computer effects to make a visual feast of glinting blades, flashing teeth, and spraying blood. It looks like the film may have danced right along the edge of an NC-17 rating with the sheer amount of graphic violence in it. Very little of the truly graphic stuff (bodies impaled to walls, severed heads, cut throats) are ever on screen long; much of the fight scenes break down into a collection of two second long clips set to intense music, but this does not make them any less satisfying.

I cannot say that this is a bad film, it's just the sort of film I would normally only watch if TiVo happened to record it, or if I was searching for something to watch in the middle of the night. There's nothing to hate about this film, but nothing to love either. It's just a nice way to escape reality for 92 minutes.

This is not a movie you'll want to take the kids to. While there is one sex scene which manages to be explicit without actually showing anything, the real objection is going to be the violence. As I stated above, this is an intensely violent movie. You will see a man's back whipped to hamburger meat, people and wolves cut/ripped to pieces, and a lot of people's necks spraying blood. Leave the kids at home.

If you are one of those Goth kids playing “Vampire”, or even if you just want to see a whole lot of sword fighting and bloodletting, then this might be worth checking out. If that does not sounds like you, and if you felt pretty 'meh' about the first two films, then this movie will be a rental at best. “Underworld: Rise of the Lycans” is in theaters now.

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