May 18, 2009

Blu-ray Review: Underworld - Rise of the Lycans

As 2006's Underworld: Evolution ended, we left Selene (Kate Beckinsale) and Michael (Scott Speedman) alone to pick up the pieces as the war between vampire and lycan took a new turn. With the elders of both sides dead, they were left without leadership, as well as the revelation that their forefather's, William and Markus, deaths their lives were able to continue unabated. There was also the revelation that Selene could walk in the day, perhaps a result of her blood mingling with that of her father, the immortal Alexander Corvinus? There was definitely potential for an interesting further tale of these two on the cusp of a change in immortal dynamics. However, rather than take this route, the creators chose to go to the past, give us a bird's eye view of how the war started by filling in the gaps of what we have already been told.

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans leaves Selene and Michael behind in favor of the forbidden, Romeo and Juliet style romance of Sonja (Rhona Mitra of Doomsday) and the original lycan Lucian (Michael Sheen of Underworld and Frost/Nixon). It is a tragic tale filled with betrayal, politics, lust, revolt, and of course a little blood soaked action. It is also a story that finds the combatants turning in their UV-round equipped pistols for pointy-tipped arrows and crossbows. Whatever the tools of war are, the fighting is sure to be fierce.

The first two Underworld features told a compelling story of vampires and werewolves that was laced with history adding depth to the newly created universe. This third entry steps away from the layers in favor of a straight up story. This does not help deepen the Underworld franchise, but it does a good job of showing us the events that led to what we know.

Rise of the Lycans chronicles the rise of Lucian, from his birth to his place as head vampire elder Viktor's (Bill Nighy) pet, his romance with Viktor's daughter and his subsequent escape from slavery and position as leader of the lycans.

Now, any veteran of the Underworld franchise knows how this story is going to turn out. The screenplay from series co-creator Danny McBride and the Outlander writing team of Dirk Blackman and Howard McCain do not offer any surprises, so don't be expecting any. What they do provide is a solid, slightly melodramatic telling of the romantic and political origins of the war.

So, without the story to deliver the real goods, we are left with the look, action, and performances to pick up the tab, so to speak. For the most part, it delivers. The action is fierce and frequent, the look is right in line with what we have come to see, and the performances, well, they are delicious.

The performances are not great, but the two male leads know exactly how to deliver what is needed. Bill Nighy and Michael Sheen chew ravenously through every scene. In particular, Bill Nighy is marvelous as he adopts the clipped, vicious manner of speaking he began in the first Underworld. The man is simply amazing to watch as he takes his performance and pushes it clear over the top. Michael Sheen is likewise wonderful as the wild-eyed charismatic lycan leader. Rhona Mitra is fine, playing the equivalent of the Kate Beckinsale role.

Len Wiseman, director of the first two films, stepped aside from the chair, allowing production designer Patrick Tatopolous to step up and make his directorial debut. Tatopoulos does a fine job of keeping the film moving forward. However, the film feels incredibly short. It clocks in at 92 minutes, but feels less than that. I have to wonder how much was chopped and if we will ever see a longer cut?

Audio/Video. The 2.35:1 aspect ratio is preserved on this Blu-ray release, and just like the first two films, the dark, blue-tinged look is represented in fine fashion. There is great detail in every scene, although the high definition image reveals some of the effects work. This film's budget was less than that of Evolution, and it shows, particularly early on when there are a lot CG werewolves on the screen, and in the forest background, which looked like a reject from Sleepy Hollow. Not really bad, just noticeable, as a whole, the film retains a slick look that is hard to fault.

On the audio side of the coin, the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track sounds spectacular. This disk truly shines whenever there are arrows flying through the air, creaky doors opening, chains rattling, or whips whistling through the air. Combine that with the effective score by Paul Haslinger (returning to the franchise, having scored the first film) and you have an audio track that will draw you in. I particularly liked the climactic battle sequence with the thundering approach of the lycans on the right, and the lighter, shoe-wearing clatter of armor-clad vampires on the left, culminating in a clash of roars and metal clangs.

Extras. This release, available separately or as part of a trilogy box set, comes with a nice selection of bonus material. (*Blu-ray exclusive)
  • Commentary. The track includes producer Len Wiseman, director Patrick Tatopolous, and a few other producers. The track is informative, not quite as fun as the ones on the first two films, but plenty of information about the shoot.
  • From Script to Screen. This featurette takes a look at getting the script right, due to the stories place in the world of the first two films. They also discuss how they had to rush a little due to the Writer's Guild strike.
  • The Origin of the Feud. This discusses the relationship of Lucian and Sonja and its role in the start of the war.
  • Re-creating the Dark Ages. This goes into the production design and look of the movie.
  • Music Video. This is for "Deathclub" by William Control. This is a remix by Wes Borland and Renholder. This gothic tune is kind of cool, reminds me of The Cure crossed with Orgy.
  • *Cine-Chat.This lets you can send messages to friends and others who are also watching the movie. I tried launching this a couple of times, but was unable to get it to load.
  • *Behind the Castle Walls. This is pretty cool, it is a picture in picture feature that has interviews and behind the scenes footage play in a small window on screen with the feature.
  • *Lycanthropes Around the World. This is an interactive map that provides information on werewolf sightings over the past 5000 years.
  • *Digital Copy. The second disk contains a standard definition copy that can be transferred to iTunes or Windows Media Player to
Bottomline. Not as fulfilling as the first two films, this still delivers on its promise of action. Much like the first two, I found it to be more fun at home on Blu-ray than it was when I saw it on the big screen. I am also happy to see that the franchise has not been watered down to the PG-13 level like so many other franchises have.



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