Dir Patrick Tatopoulos. US. 2009. 92 mins
With Kate Beckinsale absent and her ex-partner Michael Sheen as its unlikely star, it's no surprise that the third instalment of the werewolves-vs-vampires Underworld franchise is more of a traditional creature feature than its hip'n'sexy predecessors. The shift might attract a few new, slightly older moviegoers to the R-rated Lakeshore Entertainment horror series. But, even with Doomsday's Rhona Mitra as a replacement sultry presence, it's also likely to disappoint the franchise's core audience of young males.
A drop-off in box office appeal was evident at the weekend when Underworld: Rise of the Lycans opened in North America through Sony's Screen Gems. The estimated first-weekend gross of $20.7m was significantly down on the debut take of January 2006's Underworld: Evolution (which went on to take $62.3m domestically) and slightly down on that of September 2003's original Underworld (which ended up with $52m).
The different feel and Beckinsale's absence may also have a limiting effect in the international marketplace, where Sony is distributing in some territories and independents in others. Each of the first two films made slightly less internationally than domestically and the gap might widen with the third instalment.
A prequel to the two earlier features, the new entry goes back a thousand years to the early days of the vampire and werewolf races. Screenwriters Danny McBride (who wrote both earlier films) and Dirk Blackman and Howard McCain (who wrote the upcoming Conan remake) introduce Sheen's Lucien as the apparently human baby of a female werewolf, born into slavery in the castle of vampire leader Viktor (Bill Nighy).
Viktor uses Lucien to start a new breed of werewolves, the Lycans, who are enslaved by the haughty vampires. Lucien - who is able to turn into a werewolf at will but suppresses his animal nature and even helps the vampires kill wild werewolves - grows up as a favoured but still enslaved castle worker and becomes the secret lover of Viktor's willful daughter Sonja (Mitra).
When the growing population of wild wolves begins to threaten Viktor's castle, Lucien takes the chance to lead a Lycan rebellion, thereby starting the feud that plays out in the other Underworld films.
The plot - a mix of Romeo and Juliet, Robin Hood and Lord of the Rings - mostly unfolds in the inky gloom of Viktor's castle (the project was shot in New Zealand, but we don't see much of that country's storied locations).
The first half is slowed down by coven intrigue among the vampires and father-daughter bickering between Viktor and Sonja. Things become more action-oriented as the film goes on and the climactic sequence is a battle between Lucien's werewolf-Lycan-slave horde and the defending vampires, who mostly fight with swords and armour rather than resorting to supernatural powers.
First time feature director Patrick Tatopoulos, who designed the creatures for all three instalments and was production designer on the second (Len Wiseman, director of the first two films, is a producer this time out), does a decent job with the drama and ensures that the film has a nicely aged look. However he doesn't always give the action scenes enough clarity or momentum.
Much of the animatronic and CGI effects work goes into the werewolves themselves. They are suitably fearsome creatures but they don't move as smoothly as they might (on a bigger budget perhaps).
Sheen (now competing against himself at the US and UK box offices thanks to the wide launches of his Oscar contender Frost/Nixon) is buffed up for his lead role - he appeared briefly in the first two Underworlds - but still doesn't have the physical presence necessary to make Lucien a convincing man-monster.
British stage and screen veteran Nighy (who was also in the first two films) goes enjoyably over the top as the ruthless Viktor while UK-born Mitra is a shade too impassive in her two-dimensional part.
Beckinsale appears very briefly at the end of the story, though it's unclear whether the cameo points to another franchise instalment or is just intended to link the new film to its forerunners (the franchise's creators have said they always intended it to be a trilogy).
Distribution (North America and some international)
Dirk Blackman & Howard McCain