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Underworld: Rise of the Lycans
Tonight's Feature Presentation

UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS (2009)

Starring: Bill Nighy, Michael Sheen, Rhona Mitra, Steven Mackintosh, Kevin Grevioux

Written By: Danny McBride (also story), Dirk Blackman, Howard McCain, Len Wiseman (story), Robert Orr (story)

Directed By: Patrick Tatopolous

The Short Version

This prequel to the vamps vs. werewolves series far exceeds expectations.

The intensity of the original is recaptured even as we switch from the modern age to the Dark Ages.

Bill Nighy puts in a marvelous villain’s performance as Viktor.

A well-paced story combines with fun and exciting action.

Even if you haven’t seen the others, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans is a monster flick that’s worth your time.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

LIPTAUER.

Hungarian cheese (the action here takes place in that neighborhood) that’s got a spicy kick to it despite its almost vampiric pallor.


Pairs Well With...

WHATEVER YOU HAD TO DRINK LAST NIGHT.

You know.  “Hair of the dog that bit you” and all that.

“We are not animals!”


There was some trepidation amongst fans when Underworld: Rise of the Lycans came out.  For one thing, it’s a prequel, and those always make fans nervous.  It also removes two of the biggest standout features of the previous Underworld films: Kate Beckinsale, and a modern setting.  For some, these two items were unforgivable from the start, and that’s unfortunate, because for those willing to give it a chance, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans is actually a very good movie that I would call better than the first sequel was.

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans is a prequel in the truest sense.  It is a feature length (since that is what 80 minutes is called now; the 90 minute runtime is padded by lengthy credits) expansion on a brief but important flashback sequence from the first Underworld, which itself takes place directly between two flashbacks seen during Underworld: Evolution.  However, you do not have to have seen either of the films released before for this movie to make sense.  (Any references that hold extra meaning for people who have seen the others are a bonus; newcomers need not fear being lost at any time.) 

Our story takes place during the Dark Ages. (This is novel in and of itself, for despite the fact that most people instinctively associate gothic monsters like werewolves and such with this period, most monster movies take place during the Enlightenment or afterward.)  As we begin, vampires and werewolves – here called Lycans – have existed for twenty years.  The Lycans are a brutal blight upon the landscape: bloodthirsty animals incapable of returning to human form once they’ve turned.  The vampires, meanwhile, have asserted political control over the area’s nobility, with the coven’s lord, Viktor (Bill Nighy, Total Recall), ruling with an iron fist.  In return for the loyalty of the human nobility – and for a steady supply of silver and slaves – the Death Dealers of the vampire coven hunt down the Lycans.  Everything changes, though, when it is discovered that a Lycan has been born who can retain human form and control the change.  Viktor chooses to spare this child, for he has plans…

Specifically, he plans to create a new breed of Lycans who can be used as slaves to guard the vampires during daylight, and he uses the child’s contagious blood to infect others to accomplish this.  Time passes, and the child grows up to be Lucian (Michael Sheen, Tron: Legacy), blacksmith to the vampires.  Despite appearing to be a loyal servant, however, Lucian resents his chains, and longs to escape.  Making things even more complicated is the fact that he and Viktor’s daughter, Sonja (Rhona Mitra, Doomsday), have become lovers, and if they’re ever caught, both of their lives will be forfeit.

Alas, it’s only a matter of time, and when that time comes, it will be the spark of a revolution…

I remember being pleasantly surprised when I first saw Underworld: Rise of the Lycans in the theatre, and if anything, I feel even better about the movie after having just watched all three Underworld movies again within a few days of each other.  This prequel takes a lot of what worked from the first two films and then adds some new touches of its own to make for a fun, effective, quickly paced monster/action flick.  And while it also retains one of the biggest flaws from the first two films, it nevertheless ends up as a highly enjoyable way to spend an hour and half.

The most important holdovers, of course, are the cast members: anyone whose character had a speaking part in either Underworld or Underworld: Evolution that also shows up in this film is back playing the same part, and the two biggest players take their opportunity to shine.

Coming out on top is Bill Nighy, who absolutely owns every single frame that he’s on the screen for and even some where he isn’t.  That he’s a wiry 60-year-old man may never even occur to you; his presence is such that he looks capable of kicking everyone’s ass just by staring.  His power and presence are extraordinary, and even if other characters weren’t already telling you that his Viktor is lord of the vampire’s, Nighy lets you know without even having to utter a word.  And when he does speak, his distinctive voice carries a massive weight with it.  It’s as though he’s channeled every actor who’s ever played Richard III and wrung the best from them, and then added his own flourish.  But along with this power, Nighy also brings forth some range.  Without question, this performance as Viktor rates as one of the better all-time vampire villains for personality, but even as he’s handing down the harshest of decrees, the ones that bring pain to his character register on Nighy’s face.  With just a few gestures, he is able to turn a straight-up villain into a more complex character, and the results are awesome.

Also putting on a strong show is Michael Sheen as Lucian, who had even less real screen time than Nighy’s Viktor in the original Underworld despite being so central to the plot.  Sheen takes his star turn and runs with it, and even though it’s tempting to look at the way Lucian is written and play it as stock somewhere between Braveheart and Romeo and Juliet, Sheen finds a way to make it his own.  In doing so, he becomes the reminder that back in the days of classic horror, werewolves were often the heroes, and he plays that heroic role without becoming a caricature.  He’s believable as both the lover and the fighter, and just as Nighy leaves the audience with no doubts about his own character’s presence as a ruler by fear, so does Sheen leave the audience with no doubts about Lucian’s presence as a leader by earned loyalty.

This, by the way, brings up one of the three major changes that set Underworld: Rise of the Lycans apart from the first two films.  With only rare exceptions – primarily in Underworld: Evolution – the characters in the first two films played things close to the vest, even when they were angry.  Here, they are far less reserved, even in the case of the steely Viktor, if you’re paying attention.  This movie’s characters are more raw, and wear their passions more freely.  It is a very noticeable difference, but it works well with this story.

It also leads nicely into our second major change: Rhona Mitra as the film’s leading lady.  It is very important to note that she is not playing the same character who had been played by Kate Beckinsale before (indeed, storywise, it can be said that Beckinsale’s Selene is actually the surrogate of Mitra’s Sonja, but anyway), and even more importantly, she doesn’t try to imitate Beckinsale as an actress, either.  The character of Sonja is much more free spirited and “devil may care,” and Mitra runs with that and makes the character her own to what degree she is able in her comparatively limited role.  (As suggested above, unlike the first two films, this one’s dominated by the guys.)  She’s very capable during the action sequences, but what really stands out here is her acting.  Any specifics would give away major plot spoilers by necessity, so instead I’ll just say that Rhona Mitra is an underrated talent who really deserves more credit than she usually gets, and that she does a very fine job here.

Rounding out the lead cast, it is very nice to see Underworld co-creator Kevin Grevioux (Men in Black II) back as Raze, even if he doesn’t have a story credit this time around.  Also returning is Steven Mackintosh (Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels) as Tannis, and it looks like he’s been watching some scheming viziers as reference points.

Beyond the cast, the most obvious major import from the previous two films is the ubiquitous blue tint that is the signature visual atmospheric of all of the Underworld movies.  For those already familiar with the series, this was a must as a simple point of continuity, and goes a long way toward immersing the viewer back into this particular universe.  For newcomers, the blue tint adds an otherworldly quality that makes the gothic horror element “pop” that much more.  Everybody wins.

Under cover of this blue tint, director Patrick Tatopolous – originally the creature effects guy for the first two films, here making his feature directorial debut – has the challenge of taking a story already heavily rooted in the modern world and making it work in the Dark Ages without creating a massive disconnect in the process.  Again, there are some audiences who just don’t want to accept this on its face, but for those willing to actually watch the film, the result is actually one of the better looking Dark Ages monster and/or action films out there.  For his own part, Tatopolous keeps the pacing brisk so that even when the swords aren’t swinging and the arrows aren’t flying, the movie isn’t slowing down.  Just as impressive is the work of the production design team, which manages to avoid the fatal flaw the doom almost every film set in this period: cheesy set design.  Here, you’ve got a forest (with perhaps a touch of Sherwood as the Lycans group together), a giant cave, and a castle that everyone made sure looks sufficiently impressive.  Every set serves to further immerse the viewer into the world; there’s nothing to pull the viewer out by looking like it was slapped together with stuff from Home Depot.  Even the CGI looks good, and that is a very rare thing.  (And interestingly enough, the production design of this film gels even better with Underworld than the production design of Underworld: Evolution did, despite the fact that Underworld: Evolution takes place immediately after the first film and within easy driving distance.)

When it comes to battle, the design team and the fight coordinators did a very nice job of keeping consistent with the stuff we’d already seen in modern-set Underworld films.  Therefore, while the werewolves fight fang and claw, the vampires still prefer to use blades and firearms – in this case, repeating crossbows.  And since there’s no such thing as PVC yet, Rhona Mitra goes into battle wearing chain mail under her leather corset, foreshadowing the look of a future Death Dealer while still keeping to the age.  Outside of duels, which are still polished, the battle sequences here are generally more chaotic than before, but that again is more in keeping with the nature of the era’s melee.  There’s also a nod made to the gothic horror of old, as the red sprays of blood are augmented to be just a little redder than they’d otherwise be under the blue tint: a classy tip of the hat to the Hammer style of filmmaking.

However, fun as the battles are, and as well played as the court politics of the vampires may be, they also betray the single greatest weakness of the Underworld franchise: the vampires just aren’t all that vampish.  If not for their aversion to sunlight , the occasional long jump, and their ability to heal wickedly fast, it would be easy to think of them as just a bunch of highly uptight humans.  There’s exactly one bite made by a vampire during the entire movie, and that’s as a means of interrogating another by tasting her blood.  The werewolves are definitely werewolves, but the vampires?  As with its predecessors, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans does little to present them as folklore monsters and instead focuses of the modernistic characterizations of vampires as gothic aristrocrats.  Werewolf fans are unlikely to care – after all, their monster of choice usually gets the short end of the story stick and doesn’t here – but for vampire fans, this may be a little off-putting.

Also off-putting is a detail missed by the movie’s otherwise unusually meticulous continuity cops: Rhona Mitra’s contacts.  One of the telltales for any vampire in the Underworld series is that their eyes turn ice blue and stay that way, but Mitra seems to have consistently forgotten to put her contacts in, and others forgot to remind her.  It may seem like a small thing, but the resulting on again/off again eye color is in fact very distracting.

Beyond that, though, there’s really little to complain about with regard to Underworld: Rise of the Lycans.  Taken either as a prequel to the events of Underworld and Underworld: Evolution or as a standalone film, it proves to be a very entertaining way to spend an hour and a half, and a rare Dark Ages treat.

Bottom line, even if it had nothing else going for it, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans would have been worth the time for the performances of Bill Nighy and Michael Sheen alone, but with all of the other goodies it brings along (and despite its generally unvampish vampires), it’s got more than enough revisit value to be worth owning.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, January, 2012


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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