When I saw the original Underworld back in 2003, I had some confusion as to what a “lycan” was: Merely hearing the term rather than seeing it written down, I thought they were talking about lichens. What, I wondered, did vampires have against this relatively benign fungus? Well, now, of course, I know that it’s some form of role-playing-game or modern-fantasy speak for lycanthrope or werewolf. They say that knowing is half the battle. In the case of this particular series of CGI-heavy horror pictures, the other half is trying to stay awake. In this regard, I did find Underworld: Rise of the Lycans slightly less soporific than Underworld: Evolution (2006). The fact that this one is about a quarter of an hour shorter may or may not be a factor, since the second film was about that much shorter than the first. If the series progresses in this manner, it will represent a great savings in time before long.
Rarely is a movie so exactly “what you would expect” as Underworld: Rise of the Lycans. It is a prequel to Underworld, meant to illustrate just how the great antipathy between the quasi-civilized vampires and the barbaric lycans came about in the first place. It mostly comes down to the vampires enslaving and abusing the werewolves to the point where one of their number, Lucian (Michael Sheen)—the most civilized of his breed—leads his brother lycanthropes in revolt against their masters. This Spartacus 101 plot isn’t sufficient in itself, so we also have a forbidden romance between Lucian and the vampire Sonja (Rhona Mitra, Doomsday), daughter of the big cheese of vampiredom, Viktor (Bill Nighy). This, of course, is intended to foreshadow his romance with Selene (Kate Beckinsale) in the first film. There is also much court intrigue and, of course, it’s all bathed in that dull monochromatic blue-color scheme that defines the look of the series.
How well does it really line up with the first two films? Someone far fonder of the Underworld franchise than I am will have to answer that. With the exception of a one-line reference to the character of William, I doubt that a newcomer to the series would have any difficulty following the plot. In any case, it fits together enough that a little voice-over work and a clip of La Beckinsale from the first movie somewhat clunkily does the rest. Beckinsale watchers, however, should take note that apart from this they’re stuck with Rhona Mitra as bargain-basement Beckinsale.
Overall, the movie isn’t without its entertainment value—of the sillier kind, which in the cases of Michael Sheen and Bill Nighy may be intentional. Sheen plays Lucian with an amusing pop-eyed intensity that is certainly entertaining, if not particularly believable. Nighy, on the other hand, brings the kind of faux gravity to the role of Viktor that only an actor of his ability could. That he also invests the performance with moments of shameless, over-the-top camp indicates that he knows full well that he’s a sufficiently formidable screen presence to get away with such. One does wonder, though, why such a silky and civilized villain can’t manage to drink a goblet of blood without it running down his chin.
In the main, the screenplay—by series veteran Danny McBride and newcomers Dirk Blackman and Howard McCain—is a muddled jumble of slaves-in-revolt clichés and strange notions about werewolves (by definition a werewolf is part man, part wolf or a human in wolf form, so it’s puzzling how Lucian’s kind can be a new form of werewolf). The characters are the usual run of busty babes in leather and unhygienic, greasy-haired guys who must spend a lot of time working out. The effects work is generally of the more cartoonish CGI variety, meaning it’s slick but looks exactly like what it is and is never in the least scary. Then again, neither were the first two films, so this may be seen as upholding tradition. Rated R for bloody violence and some sexuality.