It probably shouldn’t work, but Underworld: Rise of the Lycans actually manages to be an entertaining if ludicrous prequel to the Underworld series. The 2009 film is directed by Patrick Tatopolous from a screenplay by Danny McBride, Dirk Blackman and Howard McCain. The tale deals with the events before the vampire-Lycan war and runs as kind of an origin story for certain characters.
Tatopolous is making his directorial debut here and it kind of shows. This isn’t the most lucid of action horror pictures and he’s not the greatest when it comes to handling motion. The action scenes are woozy muddles of dim movements, which don’t exactly show well against the predominantly dark settings. For all the creature design involved, they sure aren’t put to good use.
Michael Sheen stars as Lucian, the first werewolf born as a human and therefore the first of the second generation Lycans. The vampire elder Viktor (Bill Nighy) raises Lucian and wants to have a horde of Lycans work as security guards and general labourers for the blood-suckers. He extorts the human nobles, offering to keep his slaves “under control” in exchange for silver.
But there are complications. For one, Lucian is like totally doing it with Viktor’s daughter Sonja (Rhona Mitra). One fateful nights finds Sonja needing rescue from Lucian after a werewolf horde attacks. Viktor brutally punishes the Lycan for his escape and Lucian longs to escape the awful cycle of existence under the vampires. His love for Sonja is strong, but how long can he be punished and treated like an animal?
The plot is certainly an interesting one in that it contains a lot of moving parts but never seems to let things get out of hand. Its effortlessness is its own reward, but it also never lacks for higher themes. The element of the nobles looking for protection from progressing slave hordes is a nice touch, especially as it sets Viktor and the vampires among the wealthy class.
This examination of social and societal class is undeniably rudimentary in Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, but it offers the plot a little more meat. Things are eventually foisted off on some sort of romantic revenge angle, which personalizes the tale, but the social structure backdrop is nonetheless a good way to shade the picture.
Sheen is a solid lead. He’s not a colossal beefcake of a Lycan, which makes his transformation more expressive. It also means he has to get by on his personality and acting chops rather than on his tenacity for taking off his shirt. It’s a nice touch because it suggests there’s more to his leadership than brute strength and a bulky figure.
And then there’s Nighy, who is intensely over-the-top as Viktor. He has all the massive vamping (pun intended) of a Hammer Horror monster, with whirling turns to the camera, sneering eyes and ardent, preposterous speeches. He is a true highlight in Rise of the Lycans, a wicked figure of spit and fire.
With a camp villain, Sheen’s lead acting skills, Mitra’s presence, and a deeper plot than it deserves, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans has all it needs to be a substantial swashbuckling vampires-versus-werewolves tale. And it mostly is just that, except for when night falls.
Rather than focusing on the action at hand, most of the film’s more vigorous sequences are done with the emphasis on suppression. The lighting is, to be kind, not good and one longs for the strained clarity of the two previous pictures. This muddies the waters and darkens the blood in a way that renders it nearly indecipherable.
Still, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans is mostly amusing if one can get past all the unnecessary darkness. It weaves a compelling story, one that expands on the already rich mythology, and it features some serious camp value from Nighy. It’s just too bad there’s so much camouflage to sift through when the fangs and claws come out.