In 2003, director Len Wiseman introduced us to his vision of an epic war between vampires and werewolves. It is a story set in modern times but tells of a battle that has raged for centuries. At the moment it appears the vampires have the upper hand, what with their Death Dealers keeping the werewolf soldiers at bay, all while keeping their very existence secret. Conflict escalates as we learn of the Corvinus blood line that spawned both races of immortal creatures and a vampire, Selene (Kate Beckinsale), falls in love with a werewolf, Michael (Scott Speedman). How very Romeo & Juliet.
Anyway, the film and its 2006 sequel set up this epic war while telling how it began. This new film takes us back to the beginning of the war. Underworld: Rise of the Lycans takes us back to a simpler time when enemies did not fraternize and the lesser race was kept in check and put to good use working for the obviously superior beings. Hey! Wait just a minute, that doesn't sound right…
Set 600 years in the past (at least that is when I believe the war began), we discover Viktor (Bill Nighy) ruling the vampire clan with the Lycans safely controlled and serving as their daytime protectors and nighttime laborers, with Lucian (Michael Sheen) as the favored Lycan son. This scenario sets into motion the events that lead directly into the events of the first two films and the connection is quite interesting.
Of course, the interest comes from the way the story is told, as we have been hearing about this past trigger effect in bits and pieces over the course of two films. We know who is involved and we know how it must finish. We don't want anyone trying to get cute and retrofitting the tale to fit into a new version of the universe. That being said, it all comes down to the look, performances, and writing. Fortunately all are generally good, making for a movie that is entertaining if unspectacular.
The story is told on three fronts. Viktor is power-hungry and perhaps a bit overconfident in his dealings with the Lycans and his daughter and this results in the start of the war. Sonja (Rhona Mitra) and her forbidden love leads to her betrayal of her father. Finally there is Lucian, the Lycan slave who rises up on the power of his love for Sonja to lead the Lycans to their freedom from bondage. Together, these three form the basis for what will happen for generations to come.
Less complex than the first two films, Rise of the Lycans' sole purpose is to put full-bodied action to the dawn of the war merely glimpsed in earlier films. It fails to engage the brain in any meaningful way, leaving it content to wander around the familiar blue-tinted frames watching the performances play out.
The biggest reason to like the film is to watch Bill Nighy (Love Actually, Valkyrie) and Michael Sheen (The Queen, Frost/Nixon) ham it up as they go mano y mano to determine top dog. They go at it like a supernatural version of William Wallace's battle against King Edward I. These two are just a blast to watch as they cut loose and clearly have fun with the less than serious material. It only serves to make the film that much more enjoyable.
The movie surges forward in fits and spurts, long-winded exposition sequences sandwiched between CGI-laden battle scenes. The exposition tries to make it sound more grand and important than it is, while the fights reach for the epic scale of Lord of the Rings. None of it works completely, but for a B-grade movie, it certainly fills a need.
Rise of the Lycans is in a good position, meaning it does not matter if you see it first or third. If you are new to the series, prepare to see the setup that will be paid off in the next two films. If you are a fan of the other films, this will finally show you the things that have merely been told about in those other two films.
All together, this does exactly what it sets out to do. Director Patrick Tatopoulos keeps everything going, doing decent work filling in for Len Wiseman (who helmed the first two films). I have to say that this movie felt awfully short, leading me to wonder if much was left on the cutting room floor. There seem to be plenty of places in the story with opportunity for expansion.
Bottom line. Whatever the case may be, the movie does pay off in entertainment value. There is plenty to enjoy, from the cool werewolf design and transformation, to some good battles, to respected actors taking it over the top, to some seriously unintentional hilarity. It is fun and sometimes that's all that matters.