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Video: ‘Underworld: Rise of the Lycans’

By Film critic
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/23/2009 3:28:25 PM ET 2009-01-23T20:28:25
REVIEW

While fans of the respective franchises might not want to acknowledge it, the “Underworld” movies and the “Twilight” novels have more in common than just the conflict between bloodsuckers and lycanthropes. They also take themselves seriously in a way that allows their fans to immerse themselves in these alternate universes while providing a steady stream of chuckles for those not so inclined.

Still, if you’ve had enough Oscar-nominated oatmeal, and you’re in the mood for a big bowl of sugary cereal with no nutritional content whatsoever, “Underworld: Rise of the Lycans” is ready for you to sink your fake fangs into it.

This prequel takes us back to the very roots of the franchise’s racial conflict, with vampire ruler Viktor (Bill Nighy) sparing the life of the first Lycan child that shows human characteristics. (Before then, the Lycans were all wolf, all the time.) That child grows up to be Lucian (Michael Sheen), who is favored by Viktor and trained in combat; at the same time, he’s forced to wear shackles to prevent him from transforming, and he spends his days as a blacksmith, creating weapons for the vampires to use against the Lycans in the vicinity.

While the Lycans move ever-closer to the vampire stronghold — where they are either killed or put into slavery — Lucian risks his life by having an illicit affair with Viktor’s daughter Sonja (Rhona Mitra, who starred in the equally guilty pleasure, “Doomsday”), a fierce warrior. On one of her “death-dealer” raids, Sonja is almost killed by a pack of Lycans, until Lucian escapes the castle and transforms into alpha dog to save her life.

Viktor feels betrayed, Lucian is thrown into prison, and things get (literally) hairy from there. There’s a revolt of the imprisoned slaves that’s supposed to put us in mind of Moses or Spartacus, but I found myself flashing on “Battlefield Earth” instead. And for all the film’s CG trickery, there’s nothing quite as effective as Nighy and Sheen facing off with swords and jumping up on chains.

There’s a lot to mock in “Lycans,” from Nighy’s obvious discomfort with his contact lenses (he spends most of the movie either opening his eyes as wide as possible or blinking furiously) to the hambone performances — you have to be an actor as talented as Nighy or Sheen to go this far over the top. Still, given that Sheen has spent much of his career acting his heart out opposite the people who wind up getting all the acclaim and the Oscar attention, who can blame him for taking a role that comes with fat paycheck and the chance to really build up his abs?

There’s lots of talk of curses and bloodlines, and it’s all supremely ridiculous. But there’s never a dull moment in “Underworld: Rise of the Lycans,” and that’s an increasingly rare commodity, even among genre movies.

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