“ Genre: Horror / Suitable for 18 years and over / Director: Patrick Tatopoulos / Actors: Rhona Mitra, Michael Sheen, Bill Nighy, Steven Mackintosh, Danny McBride ... / Blu-ray released 2009-05-18 at Entertainment in Video / Features of the Blu-ray: PAL „
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Underworld: Rise of the Lycans" is a 2009 action film which was directed by Tatapoulos, in his only major directorial role.
Warning: Spoilers will likely be given during this review.
The film is 92 minutes in length and stars Michael Sheen ("Frost/Nixon", "Kingdom of Heaven", "The Damned United") as Lucian, Bill Nighy ("Shaun of the Dead", "Underworld", "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest") as Viktor, and Rhona Mitra ("The Number 23", "Shooter", "Strike Back") as Sonja.
The plot for the film reads as follows: An origins story centered on the centuries-old feud between the race of aristocratic vampires and their onetime slaves, the Lycans.
This is the third in a series of films of which, at the time of writing, totalled four. It is not, however, the third, chronologically, as this is a prequel to "Underworld", "Underworld: Evolution" and "Underworld: Awakening", and deals with what we now know as the beginning of the rivalry between vampires and werewolves. This is (to date) the only directorial role for Patrick Tatapoulos, but the Frenchman is no stranger to Hollywood, and has overseen the production design of "Independence Day", "Live Free or Die Hard" and the remake of "Total Recall", amongst others. Is it any good? Let's find out!
The film starts with a voice over from Sonja, who goes into detail on the beginning of the Lycans, as Viktor creates armies of slaves from their kind. There is some excellent imagery as the humans turn into werewolves. The transcript is as follows: "Two Decades had passed since the creation of both species. The War had begun. Viktor increased his Army, creating a Legion of Vampires to protect them from the very first Clan of Werewolves: A Vicious and Infectious Breed, unable to take Human Form ever again... Until 'He' was born. Lucian. And although every Fiber of Viktor's Soul warned him to slay this child, he did not. Over the years this child grew, he possessed a strength and focus that the ones before him did not. Viktor would use Lucian's infectious blood to his benefit, taking advantage of the Child's thirst, pitting it against him as he was forced to feed off Humans: Viktor's Slaves. Instead, he created a new race of Immortals, Lycans: Werewolf, but also Human. Unlike the others, this new breed could be harnessed, enslaved to guard them in the daylight hours of their Masters. Or so Viktor thought, so very long ago."
One thing I did enjoy about the film was its hue - almost as if it had a blue tint to it during most scenes when it was supposed to be dimly lit, like battles in the forests, or underground vaults. This helped the violent horror along quite nicely, and provides the viewer with some tremendous bloody and gory parts that are hugely enhanced if watching in high definition Blu-ray. The only problem I have with it, though, is that the make-up on Viktor's face, when shown close up, works well, but the make-up artist has somehow missed the ears. This is also evident on the rest of the vampires, too. However, the attention to detail on the werewolves is incredible.
Image-wise, the set designers have left no stone unturned. Viktor's castle is how you would imagine, with heavy iron doors, stone walls and floors, and huge pillars adorn it on either side of the pathway in the throne room. His throne, too, is a wonderful seat with a tall backrest that salutes his power. In contrast, the dungeons where he keeps his slaves are dank and cramped, which look as though they are not nice places at all. And that's fine, because it's exactly what they're supposed to look like. I am not so sure if, for example, Disney had gotten hold of it, whether the dungeons would have had the same fetid appeal.
I did enjoy a scene of splendid violence, where a human is given to Lucian as a sacrifice. It is here where the Lycan starts to understand what he is, and it was easy to feel his confusion and lack of knowledge of what was happening to him. He has spent his whole life around vampires as a slave but is starting to realise that he's different than his masters. The gory scenes as Lucian rips apart the unfortunate being is extremely bloody but it is important for the viewer to see what is going on with the storyline, and the beginning of the film series as a whole. All too often, a film can quickly get confusing if you don't know which point in time it is at. Having said that, Quentin Tarantino once said that every film must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It doesn't necessarily have to be in that order. I guess the case in point being with Pulp "Fiction", which skips around between all three.
When the Lycans rise up against the vampires, we get a healthy dose of some intense CGI with the biggest crossbows you've ever seen being fired from the vampire's castle on to the baying hordes, and while Viktor looks on, the essence of being a vampire is caught on film again as he was restricted to the dark shadows of the castle walls because of the creeping light outside. I also loved the vampire way of putting their own kind to death, which depicted the condemned one chained to the floor and a stone pillar. Slowly, a massive cog begins to unwind, and the covered roof begins to seep a little light, where it eventually opens up fully, letting light shine down on the victim as they burn away to non-existence.
It's not all brilliant, though. With the Blu-ray enhancement hitting our viewing pleasure, and the invention of the stunning 4K resolution TVs, it is getting easier to spot the cracks in the make-up the vampires are wearing. For instance, Viktor looks like he has corpse paint on - the sort that black metal musicians wear before taking to the stage. This is also noted when we see a side view of the vampire, where I easily picked out where the make-up artist stopped around the ear area. This was the only major blot on the film, however. If I had another, it would be that a story of such importance to the film series was a little rushed. I felt that it could have benefitted from being around 20 or 30 minutes longer, in my opinion.
It's difficult not to like Viktor, and I thoroughly enjoyed Bill Nighy's performance - an actor who always seems to step it up in each and every varied role he plays. This was Nighy's third outing as Viktor, though, and during that time he must have grown to understand his character a little more, making the vampire easier to play. Viktor is your typical vampire, which is something I like to see, and it is clear that Nighy has watched Christopher Lee in the past and transferred some of his acting to this era. The cool, calculating vampire has always been the quintessential vampire, as far as I'm concerned.
Rhona Mitra had filmed "Doomsday" a year before this film, which helped her to take on the role of Sonja because of its high-action fast-paced scenes. She loved the role so much that it is said she refused to remove the fangs, stating that "I put those fangs on the first day and I felt they should always have been there; it's strange. So I kept them in through the entire time of shooting, throughout all my dialogue and everything."
Michael Sheen played Lucian in the first "Underworld" film in a more pronounced role than this one and the chemistry between him and Kate Beckinsale (who played Selene) was undeniable, especially since the two had dated for nearly eight years at the time. The interaction between Sonja and Lucian is a little different, though, and I am not entirely convinced either actor felt comfortable with each other. Lucian felt so much love for Sonja and the wall driven between them by Viktor angered him, as well as helped ignite the war between lycan and vampire.
Filmmaker Commentary - I had hoped for an actor or two here, but we just get the director and producers. However, the detail is good and varied, with some informative talking points.
Cinechat - This is a feature which apparently lets you send messages to other people watching the film, providing your Blu-ray player is capable of online access. I failed to launch it every time I tried, though.
Behind the Castle Walls - I do like this. It has footage and interviews which play in a little window as the main feature rolls. I didn't watch it all the way through, but I may do one day.
Lycanthropes Around the World - Here we have an interesting map with info on werewolf sightings over many years.
From Script to Screen - A nice little insight into how they avoided potential continuity problems with the timeline of the film.
The Origin of the Feud - This is basically a discussion on how the relationship between Sonja and Lucian evolved, and its eventual lead-in to the beginning of the war.
Music Video - "Deathclub" - by William Control. Exactly what it is, that being a music video.
What the Critics Say
The Hollywood Reporter: "Thanks to sturdy performances by holdovers Michael Sheen and Bill Nighy as well as tidy, unfussy direction by first-timer Patrick Tatopoulos, the creature designer who is taking the reins from originator Len Wiseman, the third installment in the successful franchise should be to the fan base's lycan."
Variety: "First-time helmer Patrick Tatopoulos (who designed creatures for all three pics) offers a satisfyingly exciting monster rally that often plays like a period swashbuckler."
The New York Times: "Although the presence of Mr. Sheen is initially distracting, it soon becomes the movie's greatest asset. There is, as it turns out, some benefit to having a real performance even in a formulaic entertainment like this."
L.A. Weekly: "Mincing around like a bored old glam rocker and hissing threats from behind electric neon eyes, Nighy seems to be the only person on set who found a glint of amusement in his part. He fares better than poor Sheen, a scraggly Wolverine who made a more credible vampire-slayer opposite Frank Langella's Nixon."
Austin Chronicle: "It's a testament to Bill Nighy's cadaverous panache that this third entry in the ongoing exsanguinators vs. lycanthropes franchise (that's vampires and werewolves to anyone not weaned on Famous Monsters) is as tolerable as it is."
This is a difficult film to like, but I did enjoy it once I re-watched it again. I find that prequels are always hard to follow because your mind is set on what you've already seen, yet it hasn't happened in the series of films, chronologically. My head can understand that fact, but I still have to second-guess why this has happened, or why that person is alive. As with every "Underworld" film, I liked the rivalry between the two factions of vampire and lycan, and though I realise that you can't make a film like this without CGI, I still think it needed a bit more human factor to make it believable. Of course, I will still watch any other in the series if they make more, but the question I have to ask myself is an easy one: how many times would I dig this out of my collection and watch it? I guess that if I watched the entire series in one go, then I will watch it again. As it stands, I may not bother for quite some time. That does not reflect on my rating, though, because it is a film which I definitely enjoyed. It is just that I feel a film series should be watched in its entirety, rather than picking one out here and there.
My rating: 7/10
It is a battle that has raged for longer than time has existed. A monumental discussion that has split families asunder, brought down governments and started wars. The question on the surface seems a simple one, but the answer is complex and full of passion - which is best; Vampires or Werewolves? The media would have us believe that the blood sucking fiends are king as they appear more often in films and are pretty sexy! However, the humble lycan thrives on us underestimating their strengths and feral fury. In a one to one battle I believe that the Werewolf would win, but what about a war between the races? Would brains triumph over brawn?
'Underworld 1 and 2' introduced us to vampire lord Viktor and werewolf leader Lucian; their two clans had been at war for centuries. 'Rise of the Lycans' throws some light onto how the battle began. Many centuries ago the vampires acted like Marcher Lords demanding that the humans provided them with wealth, shelter and sustenance - or else be killed. Unused to hard labour the Vampires use captured Werewolves to work their mines. Viktor is the leader of the Vampires and his priced asset is his strong willed daughter Sonja. When she begins to fall for the Lucian their love could bring together the races, or rip them apart.
Having seen the first two films in the 'Underworld' series and believing that sequels diminish in terms of entertainment I was not expecting much from 'Lycan'. With original star Kate Beckinsale missing; it is up to lookalike Rhona Mitra to take the similar role of Sonja. However, this is not a film from the female perspective like others in the series, but instead tells the story of two men; Lucian and Viktor. It is lucky then that in the previous films these roles were played by two good actors and they continue here. Michael Sheen is the stand out role as Lucian in the film. Sheen is an exceptional actor and is as comfortable in genre pieces as heavy drama. He adds a touch of class to his performance as a Lycan in bondage and a depth you would not expect from a film like this. Bill Nighy as Viktor also does a sterling job and helps you to understand why he acts like he does. It is easy to overlook Mitra as Sonja, but she does a decent job in mimicking Beckinsale and helps us understand why Viktor and Lucian are both obsessed with this other vampire so many centuries into the future.
With some top actors it could be easy to suggest that the film has some weight. This is not the case as the film itself is pure hokum. Essentially it is a series of running battles from a giant Vampire castle, out of it, and then back in again. This is probably because, although a decent looking film, the budget would not stretch to too many sets. Therefore, the bleak exterior and interior of Castle Vamp is pretty much all you see. Set in an alternative Medieval period (I think that is what they were going for) 'Lycan' was always going to need heavy special effects. These special effects are another indication of a decent budget that was not quite enough. Portraying Werewolves in film has always been flawed as they look unnatural - which they are. However, whilst other unnatural creatures can look good on screen (e.g. Aliens) these just look CGI naff. These dubious special effects are only highlighted by BluRay, which is an unforgiving format. The CGI stands out, as does the Matte Painting used to try and make the sets seem bigger.
As a prequel 'Rise of the Lycan' is a good introduction to the series and in many ways has a better understanding of the whole Vampire vs. Werewolf war than the other films. Unfortunately, in terms of action it falls flatter. With more vampires and werewolves than ever before the battles should be more epic. However, they actually feel less so. Director Patrick Tatopoulos is unable to stretch his resources or imagination far enough to paper over the cracks of the limited budget. The larger fight scenes feel like CGI vs. CGI, which is never fun. In fact, the best action was when everyone was in human form like the grim attempted escape of the Werewolves.
'Underworld: Rise of the Lycan' is not the strongest genre film around. However, I would be tempted to say that it was the best in the series yet, as it had some fun action sequences and a story line that actually made sense. However, when you think of vampires vs. werewolves you expect things to be epic. This is not the case as the film relies too heavily on diminished sets and CGI. For people looking for recent Vampire kicks I would suggest 'Let the Right One in' and for Werewolves 'Ginger Snaps 1 and 2'. However, if like me you have seen all the other genre films around and only have this left you will leave happy enough after watching a decent, if uninspiring, film.
Director: Patrick Tatopoulos
Starring: Michael Sheen, Bill Nighy and Rhona Mitra
Price: Amazon uk £11.68 (BluRay)
Play.com £13.99 (BluRay)
'Lycan' is not a great film for advertising the BluRay format in terms of making something look good. However, it does highlight that the format can punish poor film makers. The CGI and poor mixtures of blacks in the film look ugly in HD. Perhaps you would not notice the fuzzy lines around the Matte Painted backgrounds on DVD, but here there is no forgiveness. I also had trouble with the audio as the music drowned out the vocals - I had to change my settings just for this film.
With no added other extras than I can remember this is a film I would say for the first time that buy the DVD for the better experience!