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Don’t be fooled by Kate Beckinsale’s credit in Underworld: Rise of the Lycans. Her spandex-suited Selene, lead Death Dealer of the improbable franchise’s first two installments, doesn’t make a cameo but rather a splice: Tacked onto the very end of this prequel is a few seconds of old footage—Beckinsale crouching atop a building—an image more memorable than either of the other movie’s plots and obviously a desperate move to boost the profile of a project that by all logic should have gone straight to video. Classy!
The weird thing is…well, Rise of the Lycans actually isn’t that bad. Compared to that of its sister films, the storytelling is stellar, remarkable not because there’s a whole lot going on—in fact, you’ll likely leave the theater thinking, “That’s it?”—but because what little does happen makes sense. (Lest other filmmakers get the idea that serving up origin stories in the last installment will free them from too-heavy exposition, I’ve got two words: Phantom Menace.)
Written by Underworld constant Danny McBride—no, not the funny Danny McBride—along with Dirk Blackman and Howard McCain, a duo whose first effort, Outlander, has recently had its release date changed to TBD, Rise of the Lycans focuses on formerly peripheral characters Lucian (Michael Sheen, who likely signed a contract before Frost/Nixon earned him Oscar talk) and Viktor (Bill Nighy, apparently bored). Viktor’s a vampire, leader of the Death Dealers and enemy of Lycans (werewolves, really) such as Lucian. Viktor has kept Lucian as his slave, however, forcing his human form to wear a collar that keeps him from getting his wolf on.
Apparently, though, Lucian’s forbidden bloodline was a major turn-on for Viktor’s daughter, Sonja (Rhona Mitra, a Beckinsale lookalike though the character was blond in the first Underworlds). So they cavort blissfully—and hilariously—behind Viktor’s back, with Sonja taking special delight in riding Lucian while his upper body hangs off a cliff. But Lucian wants to be free and breaks his collar to release his inner alpha-Lycan, at which point Viktor gives the medieval equivalent of It Is ON. And when his little girl makes the dreaded announcement—Lucian’s her baby daddy!—Viktor really gets pissed. (At least he seems to— it’s difficult to tell with Nighy, who was outfitted with ice-blue contacts that make him look perpetually startled.)
Rise of the Lycans, then, is little more than a chase-and-destroy story, what with Lucian upheaving his posse and Viktor declaring war. Director Patrick Tatopoulos does an adequate job with his feature debut, taking the reins from Beckinsale’s husband Len Wiseman after paying dues as part of the special-effects crew in the first two installments. Tatopoulos adheres closely to the other films’ palette, though that’s not exactly difficult considering the atmospherics range from dark gray to dark blue. And, more important, everyone’s hair still looks stringy and wet, no matter what the weather. Considering the general superiority of this installment, retaining some pieces of its predecessors’ stupidity is only good manners.