As 2006's Underworld: Evolution ended, we left Selene (Kate Beckinsale) and Michael (Scott Speedman) alone to pick up the pieces as the war between vampire and lycan took a new turn. With the elders of both sides dead, they were left without leadership, as well as the revelation that even with the death of William and Markus (their forefathers), their lives were able to continue unabated.
There was also the revelation that Selene could walk in the day, perhaps a result of her blood mingling with that of her father, the immortal Alexander Corvinus? There was definitely potential for an interesting further tale of these two on the cusp of a change in immortal dynamics. However, rather than take this route, the creators chose to go to the past, and give us a bird's eye view of how the war started by filling in the gaps of what we have already been told.
Underworld: Rise of the Lycans leaves Selene and Michael behind in favor of the forbidden Romeo and Juliet style romance of Sonja (Rhona Mitra of Doomsday) and the original lycan Lucian (Michael Sheen of Underworld and Frost/Nixon). It is a tragic tale filled with betrayal, politics, lust, revolt, and of course a little blood soaked action. It is also a story that finds the combatants turning in their UV-round equipped pistols for pointy-tipped arrows and crossbows. Whatever the tools of war are, the fighting is sure to be fierce.
The first two Underworld features told a compelling story of vampires and werewolves laced with history, adding depth to the newly created universe. This third entry steps away from the layers in favor of a straight up story. This does not help deepen the Underworld franchise, but it does a good job of showing us the events that led to what we know.
Rise of the Lycans chronicles the rise of Lucian, from his birth to his place as head vampire elder Viktor's (Bill Nighy) pet, his romance with Viktor's daughter and his subsequent escape from slavery and position as leader of the lycans.
Any veteran of the Underworld franchise knows how this story is going to turn out. The screenplay, from series co-creator Danny McBride and the Outlander writing team of Dirk Blackman and Howard McCain, does not offer any surprises, so don't be expecting any. What they do provide is a solid, slightly melodramatic telling of the romantic and political origins of the war.
Without the story to deliver the real goods, we are left with the look, action, and performances to pick up the tab, so to speak. For the most part, it delivers. The action is fierce and frequent. The look is right in line with what we have come to see, and the performances, well, they are delicious.
The performances are not great, but the two male leads know exactly how to deliver what is needed. Bill Nighy and Michael Sheen chew ravenously through every scene. In particular, Bill Nighy is marvelous as he adopts the clipped, vicious manner of speaking he began in the first Underworld. The man is simply amazing to watch as he takes his performance and pushes it clear over the top. Michael Sheen is likewise wonderful as the wild-eyed charismatic lycan leader. Rhona Mitra is fine, playing the equivalent of the Kate Beckinsale role.
Len Wiseman, director of the first two films, stepped aside from the chair, allowing production designer Patrick Tatopolous to step up and make his directorial debut. Tatopoulos does a fine job of keeping the film moving forward, but the film feels incredibly short. It clocks in at 92 minutes, but feels less than that. I have to wonder how much was chopped and if we will ever see a longer cut?