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Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (2009)

The problems with a prequel are many.  With Underworld, the biggest is that so much back story has already been detailed throughout the previous two films that we already know what led to what, and the motivations behind everyone’s actions.  All making a prequel can do is flesh out these ideas and show us something deeper, and possibly previously unrevealed to make it worthwhile.  Unfortunately, prequels are hardly ever that imaginative or worthwhile.

The other detractor is that we are already familiar with these characters at the end of their lives.  We’ve seen their emotional states after centuries of turmoil, conflict, and deceit.  So, in a prequel, one must strip all that emotional depth and history away.  These are not the characters as you’ve come to know or enjoy them, and that can make them far less interesting or entertaining.  Basically, in a prequel, there is less to explore because we already know the outcome, and that’s worst thing to go into a film knowing.

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans takes place centuries ago telling the tale of how Lucian (Michael Sheen) came to be, and his eventual struggle to break out of the oppressive tyranny of the vampire elder Viktor (Bill Nighy).  Lucia is a lycan, the first of a new species able to retain human form, and change to a wolf at will.  As he is brought up under Viktor’s vampiric regime, Lucian becomes passionately in love with Viktor’s beautiful and strong willed daughter Sonja (Rhona Mitra).  However, they must keep their love a secret as Viktor would never allow such a union to exist, but it is only a matter of time before secrets are uncovered and a lycan revolt is sparked.

Michael Sheen is clearly at the forefront of this film as Lucian.  It’s his story to ascension from slave to lycan leader.  He fills the role well as a strong, bold, and passionate warrior.  He is clearly a deeply talented actor with wide range that understands the character completely.  Sheen is able to take what Lucian was in the first film, and wrangle him back to a more impulsive, youthful man driven by his passions instead of being methodically driven by sorrowful vengeance.  Of course, Bill Nighy returns as Viktor, and is much more in the forefront of the story.  He commands his scenes with his usual intensity and venom, but also brings forth the pain of a hurt father when needed.  His subtlety of emotion gives Viktor his gravitas.  I couldn’t imagine anyone else bringing this much theatricality and impact to Viktor.  I just wish Nighy wasn’t so gung ho for those blue contact lenses.  They get to be distracting after a while.

The one thing this film allows us to freshly explore is Sonja, portrayed by the always fantastic Rhona Mitra.  She has spirit to spare.  Sonja won’t be held down by anyone as she is a brash, capable, and proud warrior.  She lacks no confidence, but is emotionally torn between the man she loves in Lucian and her beloved father, Viktor.  Rhona plays the heartbreak very well showing it troubling Sonja beneath the surface.  She is absolutely a strong lead, and entirely convincing as the kind of strong, bold woman that Lucian would devote his heart to.  Simply due to Sonja’s confidence, strength of character, and emotional context, she can prove to be an even stronger lead than Kate Beckinsale at times.  She is a finely textured character that makes it easy to see how a war could breakout over her by two men who deeply loved her.  However, it is Viktor who allows his disdain for the lycan species to eclipse his love for his own daughter.

Steven Mackintosh reprises the role of Tanis.  I absolutely loved his uninhabited weasely personality in Underworld: Evolution.  Here, it’s much more restrained because Tanis cannot risk Viktor knowing of his shady dealings.  So, Mackintosh never gets a chance to really flesh out the character.  He plays it quite straight and low key.  It’s a shame that is necessary since, as we’ve already seen, Tanis can be an immensely entertaining character.  It’s almost a disservice to the film and the actor to have him play the character as so subservient.  He was always a bit of a coward, but at least he had some bravado before.

On a side note, I had hoped that Kraven would appear in the film.  I had seen Shane Brolly in the IMDb credits prior to seeing the film, and expected his despicably deceitful character to grace this film.  Unfortunately, his credit is merely for the re-use of dialogue from the first Underworld at the film’s end.  While Shane Brolly did overplay Kraven at times before, I still enjoyed the character in general.  He was fun because, while surrounded by characters full of honor, dignity, and respect, he was an entirely straight forward self-serving, egotistical, and reliably disloyal delight.  What you saw was what you got, and he never wrapped himself up in a web of facades to cloak his dishonorable actions.  Truly a character you loved to hate.  Unfortunately, it is doubtful we’ll ever get to see him, again.

Patrick Tatopolous takes over the directing reins from Len Wiseman, and does a fine job.  He maintains a consistency for the franchise in all aspects.  To his credit, he handles every dramatic moment as if this was the first film in the series.  He doesn’t allow foreknowledge from the previous films to diminish the dramatic integrity of what he’s putting on screen here.  He surely makes it so that any newcomer can watch this film first, and still feel the weight it deserves to give the other films their proper context.  And quite seriously, the drama can be heart wrenching and deeply impactful.

The film does lack in the CGI area.  Where the previous two films had quite seamless effects, here, it’s not quite as smooth.  The first film had a $22M budget while Evolution had $50M.  This falls in between with $35M.  Still respectable, but with larger effects sequences featuring more lycans running amuck and so forth, the filmmakers probably had to stretch the dollar thinner to accommodate it all.  The practical effects are still consistent with the rest of the franchise, but the screenplay required CGI visual effects to take a more prominent role this time out.

The music here is an expectedly more traditional film score.  While that’s not entirely new for the series, it clearly wouldn’t be peppered with industrial rock remixes.  As with Tatopolous’ direction, the cinematography also maintains a consistent cinematic quality throughout.  It’s very well shot and edited.  Much of the same techniques are used with momentary slow motion action beats, and the desaturated blue tones.

Ultimately, what we have here is a hard film to sum up.  There’s solid talent up and down the line on both sides of the camera.  The screenplay is executed very well by deeply talented individuals.  The CGI is a bit dodgy here and there, but the real stinging point that damages the film is that there’s nothing new to be had here.  From the first film, we knew all of this story, and more importantly, the end results of it all.  The screenplay, while well conceived, offers nothing that we weren’t already told two films ago.  It simply takes that spoken back story, and shows it to us.  No new layers are added to the Underworld mythology, and no new perspective can be really had by watching this film.  Maybe there’s a little more emotional context seeing who Lucian was, and then, who he came to be centuries later.  So, you see it’s not a bad movie at all, but it just is a generally unnecessary one.  You can take it or leave it because, quite frankly, there’s very little to gain if you’ve seen the first two Underworld movies.  I like a good, solid back story to be fleshed out, but if a prequel isn’t going to flesh anything out to show us something new to the storyline, it fundamentally fails.  That could launch me into a whole different rant about another film franchise’s prequels, but who really has the time for that sordid mountain of madness?


Underworld: Extended Edition (2003)

After seeing and enjoying the sequel Underworld: Evolution on its theatrical opening weekend, I decided to give the original film a second chance with the extended edition.  It was clear then that I should’ve given Underworld a second viewing quite a while before then.  With that viewing, things became more enjoyable, and more importantly, coherent in a second viewing (even with two solid years between viewings).  Anyway, this version of the film has 12 minutes of additional footage with 11 minutes of replacement footage.  The audio commentary with director Len Wiseman and cast members Kate Beckinsale & Scott Speedman help to mark the new footage (quite important to me only seeing the theatrical version once).  More back story is revealed on our leads, and a few other tidbits are injected.  Now, there’s really no extra gore here, and so, don’t let the “unrated” moniker get you excited.  It’s just a marketing tool for horror fans, plain and simple.  Now, I will endeavor to make a far briefer synopsis this time out.

A war between vampires and lycans has raged for numerous centuries, but the reasons why there ever was a war is unknown to most everyone.  Digging into the past is forbidden amongst vampires, and that’s just the least of what’s forbidden.  There are many unknowns that none question, but the vampire death dealer Selene (Kate Beckinsale) soon raises all those questions.  After tracking a pair of lycans and subsequently engaging in a shootout in a subway station, she becomes convinced that they were after a human named Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman).  She persists in unraveling this mystery, even more so when met with resistance from the decadent second-in-command Kraven (Shane Brolly).  He pushes so hard against her that she becomes even more suspicious, and goes to desperate measures.  She awakens elder vampire Viktor (Bill Nighy) a century ahead of schedule, and seeks his help.  With his power of command and physicality, he easily reaffirms control of things.  Meanwhile, the lycans’ plan slowly is revealed, but not fully until far later in the film.  In any case, this plan has everything to do with Michael’s bloodline, and with the survival of the lycan species.  Selene soon becomes Michael’s only ally when it seems all are gunning for him, and neither of them know why, not truly.  Ultimately, all the lies, deceit, deception, and secrets are made known, and the consequences of them all will change everything for both species.

When I first watched this film, it was very confusing and tiring on a mental level.  There were so many plot twists and turns that from one scene to the next I didn’t know who was a villain, an ally, or a hero.  I was completely lost on the geography of this plot, let alone where these characters stood within it.  By the end, nearly everyone you believed was a protagonist or an antagonist flipped sides, and it was all very confusing.  I felt like Michael Corvin wondering just, “what the fuck is going on?”  This time through, I was fully aware of where the plot was going, and everything made much more sense.  A second viewing allows you to be “in the know” about the intentions, schemes, and treachery of all.  It allows you to enjoy the film more since you are not trying to re-decipher the plot every few minutes.

Now, I still find the action sequences to be lacking.  A shootout is a shootout – practically every action flick has one.  Granted, it would be silly for the vampires and lycans to be doing battle with swords and battle axes since these are technologically evolved times, but after seeing the sequel, Underworld: Evolution, there are other ways to create multiple action sequences unique within one film and make them exciting and dynamic.  Since I had already seen this movie, I knew what to expect from the action sequences, and so, I was able to enjoy them more.  But still, they could have been much more impressive and unique.

I still give major praise for the effects in this film, both practical and computer generated.  They are exponentially better than the cheesy, third-rate CGI in Van Helsing, and nothing here comes off cheap.  It’s all wonderfully designed and executed.  After watching some of the featurettes on disc two of this set, I got to appreciating the development of this film even more than before.  I do retain the belief that this film could have benefited from a bit less dreary visuals.  The desaturated colors really bring down the potential beauty of this motion picture.  The Crow absolutely had an insane amount of darkness, and a heavily gothic look to it, but it is a beautiful film.  It didn’t use desaturated colors, but instead used the contrast of light and dark.  I believe the same could’ve been done here, and made the visuals much more compelling.  Still, the cinematography is fabulous, and the production design is deeply intricate.

The music as well as the costume design is directly in line with that of The Matrix – industrial rock remixes and tight black leather n’ latex.  Yes, it’s been done to death, but it certainly works fantastically well here.  Kate Beckinsale looks all the more beautiful and sexy the more you see her.  The lycans have a far more down n’ dirty look as they live a more low class lifestyle than the aristocratic vampires.  I guess leather attire will always be some indefinable symbol of coolness.  So, despite my previous negative attitude towards said choice in costume design, I really won’t knock it now.  It’s cool, and I’ll leave it at that.

The quality of the acting doesn’t change in this extended cut, we just get more of it.  I speak nothing negative about it, and knowing where things ultimately lead up to not only in this film, but the next, I truly understand the coldness of some characters.  Those that survive this film definitely show far more depth in the sequel.  Still, I still have to praise Michael Sheen for bringing such a great character like Lucian to life.  He does an incredibly intriguing job with him, and by far, proves Lucian to be the most in-depth and emotionally invested character here.  The rest of the cast has acting chops to spare, and while Speedman may seem miscast in this film, I think him coming into his own in the sequel really makes up for anything he may appear to lack in this film.

Again, what this extended cut gives us is more character moments.  These are nice extra elements, but don’t change the complexion of the story or characters much at all.  They just add some additional depth and back story.  The pace of the film was already pretty slow, and thus, this only elongates the existing pace.  There is a sex scene between Kraven and Erika, but there’s nothing gratuitous about it.  It’s sexy and lustful, but no real nudity  Beyond that, there are a few bits and pieces of scenes added back in that were likely just cut for time originally.

All in all, with two years later and a fresh perspective along with the knowledge of the sequel with me, I appreciate Underworld much more.  The story does drag in the middle (even more so in this extended cut), but it really picks up near the end.  I recommend that anyone who may have disliked or was disappointed with this film should give it a second viewing.  Being aware of the plot and its progression will allow you to appreciate the overall film much more.  Your mind is more free to enjoy it instead of trying to keep up with plot twists.  Simply put, you’ll spend much less time being confused, and more time enjoying yourself.  Checking out this extended cut should be an option for you, but it doesn’t offer anything greatly important regarding the plot, let alone the action, but does offer more on the characters themselves.  Theatrical or extended is perfectly fine for a second viewing.


Underworld (2003)

I have become a fan of this franchise based on its potential.  I don’t think any entry, so far, has really been great overall.  One entry excels in areas that others fall short in.  It’s hard to do a straight update on my old review of this film.  There are two reviews I did.  One from my initial viewing of the theatrical version, and one from the extended edition which serves as a more informed second viewing.  So, what follows is merely a polished up version of my original 2004 review of Underworld.  Bare in mind that this is a first reaction review, and does not reflect my current sentiments on the film after multiple viewings.  For that perspective, check out my review of Underworld: The Extended Edition.

When I first heard about the premise for this movie, I thought it was gonna be one to watch.  A must-see, even.  Simply put, that premise was the dynamic of Romeo & Juliet set in the world of vampires & werewolves.  I was so very excited to see this movie!  Through all the trailers and TV spots.  With all the months passing by, I only became more anticipatory of this film’s release.  But in the week of the theatrical release, I starting reading the reviews.  They were bad.  Even the horror sites were saying it was a dull, boring, unoriginal, unimaginative movie.  Bloody Disgusting, Diabolical Dominion, and Creature Corner all gave it BAD reviews.  After that, and numerous visits to RottenTomatoes.com, I chose against going to see this film that I had been so anxious to see all year long.  However, after its release on DVD, I finally decided to plunk down some bucks to rent it, and all I can say is that all the reviews were right.  But before I go any further, let’s TRY to lay down the plot for this quite dull and highly non-innovative film.

Kate Beckinsale plays the vampire Selene, a Death Dealer whose job it is to hunt down and kill off the Lycans (aka ‘Werewolves’).  At film’s start, she gives us a nice expositional voice over to help with the film’s general setup.  A war between the two species has raged for 600 years, and despite the fact that no one truly knows how it all began (digging into the past is forbidden amongst vampires), the war continues.  Though, the vampires believe that the war is soon to end, it would leave Selene’s kind, the Death Dealers, as an obsolete faction among the decadent lifestyle the vamps have adopted.  Meanwhile, two werewolves are shadowing the footsteps of a mortal man, Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman), but for what purpose, that is not revealed for another HOUR, maybe more!  A shoot-out goes down in a subway station between the vamps and the ‘wolves, amongst humans.  We get our first look at the werewolf transformation, and it’s not half bad.  Now, at this point I would like to rush the plot synopsis quickly along, but there is too much to simply sum in one paragraph, but I’ll try.

On the vampire side of things, it is only a short time before they are to reawake one of their elders from a centuries’ old sleep.  These elders are held in a tomb of sorts inside the Victorian-esque mansion all these vampires live in.  In the meantime, their acting leader is Kraven (Shane Brolly), a very self-minded bloodsucker who is Selene’s greatest obstacle.  This becomes even more evident when Selene’s interest is peaked as to why the Lycans were following Corvin, and she ultimately is forced to go against everyone’s orders to discover the truth.  While investigating Corvin at his apartment, a small pack of Lycans come looking for him, including their leader, Lucian (Michael Sheen).  During this encounter, Lucian takes a heap of a bite out of Michael’s shoulder, and damning him to become a werewolf, in time.  At the tail end of this encounter, an amazing stunt is performed where Sheen chases after Selene’s luxury import car, and just runs up atop of it.  How it’s performed, I’ll tell you later, but no wirework was involved.

Anyway, to find guidance and wisdom as to what plans the ‘wolves might be forging, Selene awakens the one who made her into a vampire: Viktor (Bill Nighy).  He is awakened in a manner not far off from Hellraiser.  He must be regenerated via the absorption of blood, but they throw a nice twist on it.  Now, even though Viktor has been awakened, Selene STILL is faced with adversity where she believed that she would have an ally.  It only forces her into an even more rebellious state to uncover what treachery has occurred amongst these immortal enemies.  There is, of course, more to this film, but I will not divulge such spoilers to you.

Yes, I know, that was more than one paragraph, but I tried.  I guess the first thing that I realized with this movie was that the action sequences are really nothing new.  How many shoot-outs have we seen in movies?!  Far too many to even consider counting, I’m sure.  And that’s basically the only way the vamps and the lycans fight.  They pull out guns and a few other weapons.  Both sides now have bullets designed specifically to kill their rival species.  The lycanthropes have irradiated ultraviolet bullets that burn vampires alive.  From that idea, the vampires invent a bullet that releases silver nitrate directly into the lycans’ blood stream.  Lycans themselves are allergic to silver.  Most have the ability to force a silver bullet from their body, but the liquid silver injected into their veins is a near instant death.  However, a lot of other rules are tossed completely out the window such as vampires now have reflections, don’t seem to have any bit of flying ability, and well, don’t really have much powers at all.  They are undead bloodsuckers that are incredibly agile, nothing more.  And any charm or veracity that have become characteristic staples of vampires are certainly drained from these vampires.  The filmmakers were going for a more biological, scientific angle, but in the process, eliminate much of the powers of the creatures.  Of course, the werewolves don’t seem to have much of a change, except for the fact that they can now switch between their two forms at will, but it takes a full moon to initially trigger their transformation after they’re first bitten.  Also, no one has ever survived a bite from both vampire and lycan.

Now, since the action sequences are tired and bland, the next question has to be, “is the movie fun at all?”  No.  Everything and everyone is taken very seriously here.  Not a singular joke is cracked, not one witty play, nothing humorous of the sort makes its way into this film.  Which makes for a very dull 121 minutes.  I don’t even think anyone in this movie even cracks a damn SMILE!  Also, the film never really delves much past the surface of these characters to give us any sort of emotional involvement with them.  And in fact, the only character I really, really liked was Lucian.  Michael Sheen has a lot of charisma and sharp theatrical sense to give the lycan leader a strong gravitas.  His is the only one with a heartfelt emotional motivation for his actions that are not wrapped up in lies and deception.  Lucian also has a great look which supplements the feral lycan quality.  Despite Sheen’s shorter stature, he really is a strong presence that commands respect, even next to his hefty second-in-command Raze.  Kate Beckinsale IS quite seriously sexy in her skin-tight PVC leather / rubber cat suit and corset, but it’s a hard thing for an attractive young woman to NOT be sexy in such an outfit.  Her character is the heroine, but despite the script’s best efforts, she’s rather mono-emotional (as practically all of the characters are).  It’s not an issue of acting quality, but the tone of the film and characters that creates such a heavy, dry movie.  Bill Nighy is fantastic as Viktor bringing his always intense emotional sense to the vampire elder.  He also commands his scenes with theatrical breadth and subtlety.  Shane Brolly as the snake-in-the-grass, short tempered vampire Kraven can feel a little over-the-top at times.  The character is wonderful as it becomes refreshing to know that, at the end, he is just as vile and self-centered as he first appeared to be.  Still, the rage and shouting could’ve been turned down a few notches to make him a little more intimidating.

Now, we hit the assessment of the plot (and yes, the film feels, at least, as long as this review).  The plot is very tiresome.  Not that it’s repetitive or anything like that, but because we keep getting more and more elements added to this plot without reason.  Well, without reason until the last 30 minutes of the motion picture.  And by that time, you really don’t know who to root for.  Those who you believed to be the villains aren’t really doing anything villainous, but some of the despised characters are despised for a reason.  Although, some of the protagonists become deserving of all that they have coming to them.  So, through the whole film you’re acting like Michael Corvin after being bit saying, “What the HELL is going on?!”  You get tired of waiting for the plot to progress to a point where you actually know WHAT the real plot is.  And once you get there, there’s not much left of the film to hold any bit of interest in you.  The fact is, the screenplay is structured in such a way that you have no clear understanding of the plot’s landscape, or where any of the characters stand in that landscape until the final act of the film.  Selene herself doesn’t know who to fight against either until that point.

And for the final bit of assessment, the special effects.  I am so very glad that director Len Wiseman chose to do as much of the effects practically as possible.  The werewolf designs are very impressive, and that certainly helps to inject much to the feel of the film, keeping it as grounded as possible.  Though, the werewolves don’t happen to showcase much movement or flexibility in this form, but when they’re crawling rabidly along the walls, they are very animated (not in the CG sense).  Also, remember that stunt I mentioned earlier involving Michael Sheen running up atop an accelerating automobile?  That was executed using a tarp of sorts attached to the back end of the car, and Michael Sheen simply ran up that tarp while the car was in motion, and thus, making him seem like he was actually running at 35 miles per hour.  Very cool, yet simple stunt.  You can catch that on the DVD.  Now, the vampires don’t have much makeup of effects work aside from their fangs and contact lenses, but Viktor is a whole ‘nother story.  As he goes through a regenerative process, a series of progressive effects were designed for him.  They were full body casts, no suits.  This is well documented on the DVD’s featurettes, and it is a make-up effects process that was well worth the time and effort.  However, what was very disappointing was the design of the vampire-lycan hybrid.  It seems highly underdeveloped as it does not work as a pay-off at all.  There is nothing special or intimidating about this design.  It showcases nothing of feral strength or creative ingenuity.  Basically, it is a vampire with a more pronounced rib cage with deep, dark blue skin.  His abilities are more impressive, but it’s still a grave disappointment on both counts, to me.  Nothing impressive at all, as is practically everything with this movie.

So, to sum it up.  Underworld is a mix of Blade and The Matrix (maybe a bit of The Crow woven in), but it lacks any of what made those such entertaining films.  There’s no fun, no excitement, or character depth to be had in Underworld.  A whole boat load of never ending plot developments that just weigh this film down far, far too much.  Add that to the fact that the characters’ emotions are practically as flat as a board.  Also, I agree with a few others that the role of Michael Corvin was miscast.  Scott Speedman just doesn’t play it with anything but weakness.  And when the finale comes, he is not one bit convincing as the bad ass that he should’ve been.  While the cast is full of talent, there’s very little to nothing for them to showcase that talent, aside from Sheen.  And as I’ve said many times, great creature and makeup effects do not a good film make.  And as strange as this may sound, I stick with a quote by George Lucas, circa 1983: “Special effects are just a tool, a means of telling a story. People have a tendency to confuse them as an ends unto themselves. A special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.”  That is very true.  The makings of a good film start in the screenplay.  If you don’t have that solid foundation in place to build upon, it doesn’t matter if have the best special make-up, visual, or creature effects ever in the history of cinema.  The quality of your film will falter.

Now, wrap ALL of this together and add in the most obvious and cliché of sequel segue endings, and you’ve got Underworld.  A greatly disappointing film that could’ve been a great, fun ride with fabulous creature effects, stunts, and at least, somewhat interesting characters.  The script was done all wrong, and it never opens itself up for some fun.  Everything is played with such earnestness and grim drama that it’s hard to gain entertainment value out of it.  We get so much plot, a good deal of back story, but belated answers and no character depth.  Plus, the look of this film is tired as well.  All blue and gray filters that make the film’s look as grim as everything else in it.  The whole movie takes place at night, in shadows, indoors, or in subterranean environments.  It makes the film feel very visually dull and bland.  And I’m not even gonna BOTHER critiquing the leather-heavy costume department as this has been a BIG trend since The Crow, or even more so since The Matrix.  Can’t seem to outlive this trend, can we?  Simply put, this is a painfully derivative film that takes ideas, production designs, costumes, action set pieces, and pretty much anything else you can think of from other sources.  And other, better ideas that could’ve injected some life into this rather dead film are jettisoned for bland, tired ones.

So, you think this review has gone on long enough, huh?  Well, now you know how long this film feels.  In the very conclusion, Underworld – a disappointment?  Indeed.  Greatly.