Friday, January 23, 2009
Movie review: Underworld: Rise of the Lycans
Clever devices and dark desires highlight a tale of forbidden love - between species.
Special effects wizard Patrick Tatopoulos directs his first feature film with the genre prequel Underworld: Rise of the Lycans - and damned if he hasn't churned out far and away the best fantasy/adventure of this fantasy/adventure-saturated weekend. Why the studios chose not to screen this dark, lustrous gem for critics is hard to fathom.
Thanks to an engaging, character-driven story (how could this possibly have been written by the same guys who scripted Outlander?), brutal, limb-chopping edge-of-seat action and believable performances from a trio of top-tier actors (O.K., we can argue about Rhona Mitra, but bear with me), I'm awarding ... Lycans three-out-of-four Pegasus hooves.
... Lycans chronicles the early years of Lucian, first of the intelligent werewolf kind, who was spared at birth by vampire monarch Viktor because - we're given to believe - he was such a pretty child. He grows up to be Michael Sheen (a.k.a. David Frost), only here sporting a shaggy mane and a physique more akin to Vladimir Putin's than Tony Blair's.
Lucian holds a place of honor and trust among the lycan slaves who do the dirty work for Viktor (Bill Nighy, delightfully sinister behind luminous blue eyes) and the other vampiric overlords - but he's still a slave, and thus bemoans his lot. No small solace derives from the fact that he's making sweet secret whoopie with Viktor's nubile daughter, Sonja (as portrayed by the nubile Ms. Mitra, seen here doing for form-fitting chain mail what she used to do for that preposerous-yet-drool-worthy Tomb Raider getup). Yes, Lucian's developed quite the taste for Sonja-flesh, though he indulges his appetite only to the point of licking. Ahem.
Meanwhile, in the depths of the forest surrounding the semi-subterranean keep of the vampires, the bestial descendents of William (a.k.a. lycan slow learners) are breeding like carnivorous bunnies and beginning to cause problems for the human lords and ladies who serve as an ambulatory blood bank for the vampires. Why, they've even begun attacking - in a haphazard sort of way - the occasional wickedly-armored contingent of vampire death-dealers.
Lucian gets into trouble for removing his dog collar in order to help protect Sonja against one of these rogue lycan assaults; Viktor has him thrown into the dungeons along with the latest troup of human unfortunates who will be converted into lycanthropes in order to swell the slave ranks. One of this new crew is an ebon-skinned, double-baritone-voiced chap named Raze (Kevin Grevioux) who will play a key role in the events to come. (Grevioux also gets a writing and co-producer credit on the film.)
The remainder of the story follows the travails of doomed lovers Lucian and Sonja as they struggle to find a way to be together away from the Underworld and its repressive, decadent, ever-so-gothic trappings. Amazingly, given that this is a story about vampires and werewolves - not to mention being the third installment in a series - this Underworld outing ends up delivering the emotional impact of genuine tragedy. Mr. Sheen and Ms. Mitra generate impressive on-screen chemistry, and when events turn for the worse we become equally caught up in the delicious revenge sequence that carries the film to its climax.
Aside from its effective dramatic underpinnings, ... Lycans benefits from a consistently dark duotone palette and a series of stunning, iconic set pieces. Designer Dan Hennah and his production crew have created a dim realm of blue-tinted, rough-hewn stone that oppresses, while Paul Haslinger's throbbing, relentless score builds tension and keeps our attention riveted to the screen.
Equally diverting are the cool devices the vampire army gets to play with, including gigantic siege crossbows and smaller ones designed to be multi-shot repeaters. Plus, there's a special chamber built expressly for the purpose of executing vampire citizens who are found guilty of high treason or similar capital offenses. Diabolical, dude.
Yes, the werewolf animations are a bit ragged - particularly when we're presented with a screen full of them bounding across the landscape - but all things considered this ends up being the surprise fun film outing of the weekend.
LIKE LOVE AND MARRIAGE?: "I gave you life." - Viktor to Lucian
"You gave me chains." - Lucian to Viktor
"I would have thought after all these years you would have known: you can't have one without the other." - Viktor's reply
DEVIL'S FOOD?: "If devils you call us, rest assured: better the devil you know." - Viktor to rebellious noblemen
WE CAN ONLY HOPE: "Lucian, it's over." - Raze
"This is just the beginning." - Lucian