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Dustin Putman

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Underworld: Rise of the Lycans  (2009)
1 Star
Directed by Patrick Tatopoulos.
Cast: Michael Sheen, Bill Nighy, Rhona Mitra, Steven Mackintosh, Kevin Grevioux, David Aston, Elizabeth Hawthorne, Tania Nolan, Craig Parker, Shane Brolly, Olivia Taylforth, Alexander Carroll, Kate Beckinsale.
2009 – 93 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for bloody violence and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, January 23, 2009.
2003's "Underworld" and 2006's "Underworld: Evolution" starred Kate Beckinsale and Scott Speedman as gore-crossed lovers, one a vampiress and the other a wolfy Lycan. Both films held screenplays and characters who could barely pass for two-dimensional, let alone three, but director Len Wiseman made up for a lot of their deficiencies through his visually compelling images. They were true-blue examples of style over substance, but at least they looked good while going nowhere special. A prequel nobody asked for with virtually the same premise—bodice-ripping vampire Sonja (Rhona Mitra) and frequently bare-chested Lycan Lucian (Michael Sheen) upset the balance in power and family loyalty when they fall in love—"Underworld: Rise of the Lycans" has the same problems the earlier pictures did, and none of its attributes. Looking like a low-rent, fraction-of-the-cost cousin to the previous two efforts, the franchise's latest (and hopefully last) entry is muddy-looking, undistinguished, and frustratingly minimal in scope.

Set in a medieval time period where people crept around in dank stone dungeons and riled up conflicts out of personal boredom, Sonja is the fetching vampiric daughter of bloodsucking lord Viktor (Bill Nighy) and Lucian is a slave-driven Lycan, the first of his kind. It is against the rules for these two races to get along, which makes it all the more blasphemous when Sonja and Lucian start a relationship in private. In an attempt to help free the rest of the imprisoned werewolves while carrying on with the enemy, Sonja is unaware of the betrayal she has caused her family to experience. The price for Sonja's and Lucian's deeds? Mutual death sentences.

Whereas its predecessors' settings alternated between a large, semi-futuristic metropolis and the wintry mountains of British Columbia, "Underworld: Rise of the Lycans" appears to have been shot entirely on chintzy soundstages. Special effects supervisor Patrick Tatopoulos, making his inauspicious feature directing debut, does not exactly amend the situation, failing to open up the surroundings and rarely journeying to an exterior location. So much time is spent sitting in jail cells and fumbling through catacombs that the film threatens to turn into a cottonmouthed chamber piece missing a point. Cinematographer Ross Emery (2007's "The Condemned") shakes the camera this way and that, not allowing for any one shot to last longer than a second at a time. For reasons unknown, the filter used to darken the image and give it a bluish hue misses the mark on atmosphere and simply looks ugly and frequently indecipherable.

Michael Sheen has become best-known in recent years for portraying real-life figures Tony Blair in 2006's "The Queen" and David Frost in 2008's "Frost/Nixon." His role as the animalistic, Harlequin-flavored Lucian in the "Underworld" series is diametrically the opposite of those parts, and Sheen gives himself over to them so fully that it doesn't seem like the same actor. Sheen avoids embarrassing himself, but it certainly must have been odd going from Oscar-caliber fare to a D-grade B-movie. As Sonja, Rhona Mitra (2008's "Doomsday") looks a lot like previous female lead Kate Beckinsale, and that is not a coincidence. They might not be playing the same character, but they might as well be. Mitra has little to do before being persecuted in the third act, and so it is her changing eye color (from blue to brown) throughout that steals the spotlight. Finally, Bill Nighy (2008's "Valkyrie") is steely, imposing and sparks with a lack of repentence as head heavy Viktor.

As a tragic romance, "Underworld: Rise of the Lycans" is too empty-minded for the bond between Lucian and Sonja to be anything more than a plot gimmick. They have nothing interesting to say to each other, outside of growling "I love you" with big, pointy teeth. As an action feature, it is a huge disappointment with a dearth of originality and innovation. Momentum is never built in these rare sequences because the way it is shot is too schizophrenic. Anyone expecting suspense or scares might as well forget it. Virtually the only elements the movie gets right are the oft-practical effects that bring the werewolves to life. Not merely CGI creations, it is apparent that actual people are behind the costumes and make-up of the Lycans, which helps to keep them looking formidable and convincing. It is unfortunate that this is where the compliments end. "Underworld: Rise of the Lycans" doesn't offer enough of anything to please anyone. It's laggard, unappealing, and emotionally comatose.
© 2009 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman