Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 32 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Bloody Violence and some Sexuality
Directed by: Patrick Tatopoulos
Written by: Danny McBride, Dirk Blackman & Howard McCain
Starring: Michael Sheen, Bill Nighy, Rhona Mitra, Steven Mackintosh, Kevin Grevioux, David Aston, Elizabeth Hawthorne & Craig Parker
Most horror franchises don’t receive prequels that take place in the Dark Ages, but UNDERWORLD has a most-welcome exception in its cinematic timeline. The third film in this “vampires vs. werewolves” franchise and the first in the chronological order of events, UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS offers a surprisingly huge amount of entertainment. This film plays out like GAME OF THRONES crossed with werewolves/vampires. It’s a ton of fun and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but a great installment in a franchise that’s a bit all over the place in quality.
In the Dark Ages, vampires, werewolves, and human live in violent ways. The vampires have humans pay tribute to them, while also fighting against the vicious Lycans (werewolves). When vampire warlord Viktor (Bill Nighy) finds a werewolf infant who’s capable of taking human form, he decides to let the child live as a loyal servant. As the years go by, loyal Lycanthrope Lucian (Michael Sheen) gets the hots for Viktor’s daughter Sonja (Rhona Mitra) and the two engage in a forbidden relationship. As werewolves beat at the castle doors and tensions rise between Lucian and Viktor, events spiral out of control to the point where we see a centuries-long vampire-lycan war begin in its gory glory.
First things first, RISE OF THE LYCANS’s production values are stellar (almost) all across the board. With the exception of some brief corny CGI in the werewolf transformations and blue filters that are used to a comically excessive degree, this film looks like it cost far more than its meager 35 million price tag would indicate. Lots of authentic looking armor, costumes, and sets were used to bring this medieval world of violent blood-suckers and hairy shapeshifters to life. Judged on a spectacle alone, RISE OF THE LYCANS is awesome.
The cool factor extends into action sequences that have a steady (non-shaky cam) eye on the combat, though there are occasional bits of annoying quick editing. The fights also have believable emotion thrown into them. Besides featuring the Lycans fight for freedom, this is also Lucian’s romance with Viktor’s daughter. Therefore, we have great scenes of a werewolf fighting for the love of his life and the vampire father being protective of his daughter (with a sword). There is plenty of gore to go around, as we see vampires get slashed and werewolves dismembered. One of the film’s best scenes has an escape through the castle hallways, all while giant metal spear-like arrows crash through the walls. That entire sequence is just plain cool to behold.
It helps that this material (which seems tailor-made for a glorified B-movie) is being brought to the screen by a talented trio of performers. The three big stand-outs are Michael Sheen, Bill Nighy, and Rhona Mitra. Michael Sheen has severely ranged in the quality of his acting. Sometimes, he’s great (UNTHINKABLE) and other times he’s terrible (the TWILIGHT series). LYCANS sees him playing the heroic leader of werewolves and a man driven by forbidden love (as cliché as that motivation may be). Sheen is basically playing werewolf Spartacus and that’s pretty awesome, because he’s putting in A-grade effort into his performance.
As the story’s blood-sucking baddie, Bill Nighy is great as the scenery-chewing, permanently scowling Viktor. He displays a sympathetic side to Lucian as an owner would to be a pet and has genuine fatherly concerns for his daughter. When he receives some emotional moments during the latter half, his angry responses feel genuine and his sadness is palpable. One quiet scene that sees him silently grieving in a corner is more than believable and offers a deeper layer to this undead antagonist. Meanwhile, Rhona Mitra plays her heroine as a sword-wielding bad-ass and a determined woman who’s not held back by the constraints of vampire society norms. I can’t believe I’m saying all of these things about an UNDERWORLD prequel, but these performances work and then some.
UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS is far better than it has any right to be. The acting is stellar from the three main leads and adds a more emotional layer to the proceedings (which also strengthens the later chronological films). Though some of the werewolf transformations may look cheesy and the color blue is everywhere, this period piece horror-action flick is pretty damn great. The fights and battle scenes are exciting, while there’s A-level effort being thrown into this B-movie premise. UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS is a fantastically fun time for fans of the franchise, while also serving as a solid introduction to the series for newcomers!