REVIEW: Underworld: Rise of the Lycans [2009]

“I loved you more than anything”

When I first decided to check out the prequel/third installment to two of my favorite guilty pleasure vampire/lycanthrope films, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, I joked to myself that I’d be shallow enough to say it failed right from the start by not having the beauty that is Kate Beckinsale. Well, I was half right. You need to remember, this thing would never be a real success because of the sheer non-necessity of it. This story is told effectively enough in Underworld as flashbacks and history, to actually need a feature length showing us it all again is just overkill. That said, though, I really enjoyed it. The tone remained, the aesthetic stayed true, but the Beckinsale factor was missed—no, not because of her looks, but actually her acting. Something about her lent a vulnerability to the character, a softness that showed a bit of humanity behind the vampiric power. With Rhona Mitra, you just get the hard-edged badass, leaving the reality of her falling for a Lycan all the more implausible.

One must give credit to the series on a whole for staying relevant and true to itself. I think that if it became anything less, some sort of caricature being churned out by the Hollywood machine, none of the original talent would have bothered to return, no matter what kind of cash was thrown their way. Bill Nighy is the kind of guy that definitely doesn’t need to be doing action films anymore. After reading interviews with him following the initial film, he complained about the sheer physicality of the role and the amount of training he had to experience. Yet here he is, six years later, still getting into the dungeon water with swords and wirework, completing the story that he began. And by his side is an actor who’s star has risen to the A-list, Michael Sheen, bringing credibility to a genre film that usually doesn’t deserve it, let alone contain it. The Lycan leader, Lucian, is the role that brought Sheen into America’s consciousness and you have to think his friendship with the producers and his belief in the material got him to reprise the role despite recently playing Tony Blair and David Frost.

It is that credibility that makes the series so popular, though. Ever since the first film, billed as a horror, gore flick, surprised by being something of substance, the mythology has taken on a life of its own. Its subtle spin on the immortality yarn was fresh enough to intrigue and rooted in reality to be relevant. This installment may actually hurt because of its time period taking place centuries ago. The neat gadgets and garlic clove bullets are replaced with medieval armor and whips, swords and horses. However, it works if you have embraced the complete story at hand. We always knew that the feud began ages ago, these two races do live forever after all, so to see it play out does excite on some level. We were shown a taste of it in Underworld: Evolution, but here it becomes reality. Even though this film was practically written in the original movie, and just expounded upon here, it still keeps a strong enough script to hold our attention and succeed as a fun ride if not adding anything new.

The reason that fact is also a detriment leads us to Rhona Mitra. In my mind I always saw Sonja as this girl who had love and compassion in her heart. Someone who saw beyond the cold, cruelty of her father to realize what combining the bloodlines could do for the peaceful harmony of their races. I thought of someone like Beckinsale, a former human that still held a shred of morality in her body, a softness to see why Lucian would fall for her. What we get from Mitra, and it is what she does, is a pureblood vampire, born and raised to kill. She is so steely-eyed and stone-faced that while her brazen attitude with her father and need to protect her people works remarkably, the moments when she needs to tear down her shield ring false. I don’t necessarily blame her as much as casting. The filmmakers saw that young men wanted to see a hot woman kicking butt and didn’t realize the other layers Kate’s Selene added to the overall tone of Underworld. As an action film she is perfect, but as a story of love and a future above prejudice and civil war, there is just something lacking.

Michael Sheen then attempts to do it all himself, showing incredible range with just a silent look at a vampire guard abusing one of his kind. Grabbing his arm to stop the whip, his eyes show the seriousness with which he makes the transgression, but also the pleading warmth for this monster to show a little compassion and respect. You can only beat someone so much before they either can’t work anymore or they wake up to the fact they are strong enough to stand their ground and fight. Sheen’s Lucian tries so hard to force those feelings of revolt down in order to keep his affair with Sonja alive, but sometimes the master’s lashings can be withstood only so long. His dynamic with Bill Nighy’s remorseless—although he shows some weakness in abandoning his daughter—bureaucrat is felt. It becomes old school versus the new and a beginning to the long war yet to be forged against the two.

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans is by no means crucial viewing for the series to make sense, but it also isn’t something to completely dismiss. Showing what we knew fully adds a layer that may or may not effect how you view the other two installments afterwards. If nothing else, it answers some questions about how each character became whom they do. I’d almost recommend seeing it just to experience the origins of Raze. Kevin Grevioux is one of the series’ creators and killed himself off in the first film only to be resurrected here in the past. His history is an intriguing one and probably the only surprise I had watching, unthinking that how he becomes Lucian’s right-hand man could occur as it does. However, it makes perfect sense and actually creates a whole new level about the relationship between immortals and humans. It’s just one more thread to bolster the mythology and add some depth to an already fleshed-out premise.

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

[1] Michael Sheen stars in Screen Gems’ action thriller UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS.
[2] Bill Nighy and Rhona Mitra star in Screen Gems’ action thriller UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS.
© 2008 Lakeshore Entertainment Group LLC. All Right Reserved.


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