#1 in my ranking of the Underworld franchise.
You know, I can dig this. One of the things that had dragged down the first two Underworld movies was the preponderance of lore that got intensely explained with a great sense of import. Here, that’s not a problem because this is the lore. I’m also actually quite surprised that the film really limits itself to the lore that it explores, refusing to bring in too much of the stuff that had been discussed previously, creating a remarkable (considering the series) sense of focus to the storytelling. It’s still overly serious and somewhat silly, but, on the other hand, finally Billy Nighy is in one of these from beginning to end.
It is the thirteenth century, and for about twenty years the vampires and lycans have been in existence. The progeny of Alexander Corvinus has begun its unhealthy relationship by the vampires capturing and trying to domesticate the first generation of lycans, those that cannot turn back to human form. In a cell where a female lycan is held captive, she gives birth to a human looking baby. This is Lucian (Michael Sheen), the first werewolf who can turn from werewolf to human and back. Viktor (Bill Nighy) takes pity on the creature, and instead of striking it down on the cell floor, he raises Lucian as a slave. Decades pass further and Lucian is a loyal slave, overseeing the other werewolves he has turned at Viktors insistence and manipulation. He organizes the other werewolves into effective workforces and helps defend the walls from attacks by William Corvinus’ offspring, the wild lycans who attack Viktor’s castle. Lucian has a secret, though. He and Viktor’s daughter, Sonja (Rhona Mitra), have grown close and begun a sexual relationship.
And you know what? That’s kind of it. The movie touches on some other things here and there, but otherwise, this is a story about a slave learning to rebel against his master with the love of his master’s daughter as the main catalyst for his change of mind. There were moments where I thought the film was going to veer off into other directions, like the first time we see Steven Mackintosh’s Andreas Tanis. Tanis was the exiled historian in the second film, but he had been exiled by Seline, who isn’t in this film, so his presence was triggering something in my brain that we were going to get something about that even though it didn’t fit. And we didn’t get it. He has a certain close call with Viktor that may be meant as some kind of precursor to his crime that would later get him exiled, but ultimately he’s just part of the other story. I have to say that I really appreciated the film’s focus.
The story itself goes in relatively predictable directions. The increasing threat of the lycans, especially the Viktor’s subjects who do not know that their lord has become a vampire, is raising the sense of danger and anger around the castle. Tensions are raising inside as a solution needs to be found for the attacks that could happen during the day with the idea of allowing the werewolves the freedom to lead the defense during the sun’s time in the sky being shot down by Viktor. All the while, Lucian, having long proven his loyalty to Viktor, cannot allow his love for Sonja to come to the surface because he knows that Viktor would never tolerate it. Of course, it does come to light and things go south for both Lucian and Sonja.
We know the ending to this story, we saw it in the first movie. Lucian and Sonja both get captured by Viktor, and Viktor punishes them by forcing Lucian to watch Sonja die in the sunlight. You know what? I can buy it. The movie’s focus and time spent on its characters makes this work well enough. It’s not great drama, but it’s effective enough to support the moment. It’s a surprisingly strong emotionally affecting ending for what this movie is, that I have to applaud it.
Of course, that’s not why most people come to an Underworld movie. The first two didn’t really have anything like an emotional core, and yet they were successful enough to financially merit sequels. So, how’s the action? Eh…it’s a step down. Len Wiseman is gone as director, replaced by Patrick Tatopoulos, a production designer who worked on the previous Underworld movies. This is Tatopoulos’s single directing credit, and he manages well enough for most of the film. The action beats, though, are odd. Almost entirely shot at night (vampires, duh), everyone’s wearing black in black environments. At least most of the previous films’ action beats were done indoors at night which allowed for greater variety in environments, allowing the action elements in the foreground to pop out more from the backgrounds. But here, they kind of blend. Also, the action finally embraces shaky cam to the full extent of any other action film of the decade, and the much clearer aesthetic of the other films are gone. It’s not incomprehensible, but it’s harder to see in a couple of important ways. It’s definitely a step down.
However, that doesn’t matter to me as much as the perfectly solid character based story at the film’s core. That’s really carried by the continually surprising cast. Bill Nighy actually tries to imbue Viktor with emotional weight, unlike his glorified cameo in Evolution where he hammed up every limited second he was on screen. Michael Sheen continues to act his heart out in this dumb series as Lucian, shouldering the film almost entirely on his own. Opposite him is Rhona Mitra as Sonja, and she’s fine. I mean, she’s pretty and all, but she’s mostly a space occupier here, relying almost entirely on Sheen to carry their scenes together.
It’s kind of a mixed bag of a film, but I have to say that I actually quite enjoyed it, flaws and all. I think it’s good enough to recommend on its own. Clear storytelling, strong acting from some of the key players, and an absence of the lore telling that burdened both of the previous films helps Rise of the Lycans become more than its predecessors and stand alone as a pretty good film.