The Austin Chronicle

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans

Rated R, 92 min. Directed by Patrick Tatopoulos. Starring Michael Sheen, Bill Nighy, Rhona Mitra, Kevin Grevioux, Steven Mackintosh.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Jan. 30, 2009

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, which is barely. Nighy's best known on this side of the pond as the tentacular Davy Jones of the past two Pirates of the Caribbean films and also to genre fans as Shaun of the Dead's crotchety, doomed stepfather. But he's also a British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award-winning West Ender whose ominous frame, piercing eyes, and chilled delivery pretty much define what it means to be a flesh-and-blood character actor in an increasingly CGI world. When director Len Wiseman hit upon the central conceit of the Underworld series back in 2003, he wisely locked in Nighy as the vampire king, Viktor, a deliriously hammy role that the actor has been only too happy to, um, sink his teeth into with a creepy charm that borders on the absurd. Fans expecting to drool over series mainstay Kate Beckinsale, who previously engaged Nighy tooth and nail as the black-patent-leather-clad Selene, are in for a sad day at the bloodfest. Not only is Beckinsale's character absent, but she's been replaced as the series' female lead by Boston Legal's Mitra, who is cast here as Viktor's daughter Sonja, which frankly does no one, fanged or furry, any good at all. Granted, this is the franchise's shark-jumping origin story-cum-prequel, and so the events in Rise of the Lycans take place centuries prior to Selene's birth. But the absence of Beckinsale's trademark grim sass is the final tenpenny nail in Underworld's coffin. Working from a script co-written by series scribe Danny McBride (not to be confused with the Pineapple Express actor, also a writer), new director (and former creature effects designer) Tatopoulos wallows in exposition and chaotically edited action set-pieces that seem downright sluggish. Apart from Nighy's sly vamping, the only other remarkable thing about Rise of the Lycans is Sheen's ur-furball, Lucian, who falls for Sonja and thus sets the stage for eternal war between the two races. It's all a bit Romeo and Juliet, minus the wit but with the added bonus of Sheen's recent highbrow roles in The Queen and Frost/Nixon echoing, weirdly so, amidst the background clatter of talons, teeth, and the savage grace of Nighy. Enough of all this internecine, interspecies squabbling. Bring on Benicio Del Toro's Wolf Man, already, and let the real howling begin.

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