Friday, January 23, 2009

This Prequel Expands On What We Already Knew

This prequel story traces the origins of the centuries-old blood feud between the aristocratic vampires known as Death Dealers and their one-time slaves, the Lycans. In the Dark Ages, a young Lycan named Lucian  (Michael Sheen) emerges as a powerful leader who rallies the werewolves to rise up against Viktor (Bill Nighy), the cruel vampire king who has enslaved them. Lucian is joined by his secret lover, Sonja (Rhona Mitra), in his battle against the Death Dealer army and his struggle for Lycan freedom.

The first film in the Underworld franchise hit our screens back in 2003, with director Len Wiseman cooking up his tale of the ancient feud between Vampires and Lycans (werewolves), which had evolved over centuries and was still raging right up to the present day. He continued the story with Underworld: Evolution, where the heroine of the piece, Selene (Kate Beckinsale), discovers the true bloodlines between the Vampire and Lycan clans. Set centuries prior, the prequel Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans is an "origin" tale, and tells the story of Lycan (soon to be) leader Lucian (Sheen), his forbidden love for Vampire Sonja (Mitra), and his struggle for freedom from the oppressive rule of head Vampire Viktor (Nighy). Even though the foundations had been laid with the two previous efforts, former creature designer Patrick Tatopoulos has created a stylish entry into this well worn horror franchise. Filming in the same blue hue, Tatopoulos has not changed anything too drastically, and the buckets of blood, violence and gore still reign supreme. With the ancient story of the slaves (werewolves) rising up against their oppressive, tyrannic rulers (vampires), the film borrows heavily from various famous films of the past (Kubrick's Spartacus, Gibson's Braveheart) and glosses it over with a fantasy/horror fable sheen. There's admittedly nothing new here, but first time director Tatopoulos has created a moody, atmospheric, stylish work (shot in New Zealand), and loyal fans will find that there's still bite left in this franchise. In the typically gloom-laden yet surprisingly entertaining prequel to the first two vampires-versus-werewolves flicks, head vamp Viktor has trouble with his captive turncoat-werewolf Lucian who has fallen for his ultra-sexy daughter, Sonja. Vampires and werewolves, of course, are not allowed to date, so this leads to all manner of bother. Viktor's right hand man, Tannis (Steven Mackintosh) sees them one night as they part, but keeps it to himself. Amid much spilling of blood, clanging of swords and gnashing of teeth, the bare-chested Lucian becomes fed up with being a slave and plots to escape the vampires' sprawling lair so he can help his Lycan-thropic brethren get some payback. With the help of Sonja and Tannis, he makes his escape and starts plotting his revenge. Lucian also wants to go steady with Sonja, but to do that he must bring an end to Viktor's horrendous overacting. Those Goth-savvy filmgoers who enjoyed the first two Underworld epics will have no complaints here. Everything they love is delivered in spades: foreboding sets, sexy costumes, mock-serious dialogue about destiny and bloodlines, frenetically edited action, and very straight performances. To non-Goths who weren't all that psyched by the first two epics, this third has three big things going for it. The film benefits by coming to us immediately after Twilight, so those who were bored witless by the wimpy emo version of vampires will delight in seeing them portrayed as they should be - with fangs, blood, growling and, as mentioned, much gnashing of teeth. The whole thing also works by being set in a time before vampires hooked up with gun dealers. There was always something a bit odd about seeing a supernatural Kate Beckinsale blasting away with high-powered sidearms. Somehow swords and giant arrows seems more appropriate for this particular other-world. The film's cherry, though, is the study in contrasts offered by Sheen. A brilliant stage-trained actor, Sheen can be seen playing David Frost opposite Frank Langella's Nixon in the superb Frost/Nixon. But while that performance is more likely to win him awards, Sheen certainly deserves credit for the high level of high-volume conviction he pours into his Underworld werewolf. They sure don't do screaming, snarling and gnashing of teeth like this on Broadway. The one real letdown was that there was no Kate Beckinsale. Okay, let me fix that, she's in there but there is no new dialog. You just get that one scene of her that we first saw in the original Underworld. This cool prequel gets a 3 on my "Go See" scale.

Here is my first WTF? Moment of the year : In the big battle scene where the Lycans are making their way to Viktor's castle, Lucian's second in command Raze (Kevin Grevioux) is leading the pack while the vampires are shooting harpoon-like arrows at them. In one scene he is still in his human form, but when the scene switches then goes back he has changed into his Lycan form, but immediately after another quick scene change we see Raze again in his human form.

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