Almost every single one of the Underworld movies, save for the first film and the current subject Underworld: Rise of Lycans, begin in a manner similar to a television series: the exact same montage of the exact same clips with the exact same voiceover given by our icy vampire protagonist Selene (Kate Beckinsale). I’ve witnessed the same damn shot of Bill Nighy’s head getting sliced off more times than I can count. This could be Underworld assuming that anybody would be interested in watching those movies without dealing with the previous films, but that just seems like cruelly leading moths to flames and so I want to pretend the fault is entirely in the filmmakers not trusting its audience to simply get it. We get it. We know the story.
Rise of the Lycans is a prequel film set before the first film (yet after the prelude to Evolution) that provides ample evidence that yes, the writers and producers of the Underworld series are not above regurgitating information we already know and that they know we know. The very basis of the film’s existence – other than continuing the successful franchise’s brand in spite of Beckinsale’s wise decision not to return to the franchise and taking her then-husband and director of the first two films Len Wiseman with her (though he still stayed on as producer and story writer) – is to tell us about a matter WE KNOW already happened, not because the characters in the first Underworld already discussed, but because we already SAW IT – including the pivotal moment that led to the central conflict in the ongoing between vampires and werewolf Lycans.
Evidently, the contract the producers had on Michael Sheen and Nighy from the first film was probably running and they wanted to use them up all the way, hence that moment is stretched to 90 odd minutes as we witness the vampires, led by Viktor (Nighty), enslave the werewolf race back in the 5th Century.Viktor particularly takes a liking to Lucian (Sheen) as his personal pet and Viktor’s daughter Sonja (Rhona Mitra) shares that very liking. So it’s almost no surprise when Rise of the Lycans retreads the good ol’ forbidden love trope to throw the races into eternal battle and here’s where I learned something very interesting. Kevin Grevioux, owner of one of the coolest voices I’ve ever heard on an actor, appears in both this and the first installment as Lucian’s right-hand werewolf Raze. That is not Grevioux’s only role – he actually developed this franchise and co-wrote the film based on his own experiences with interracial dating and the backlash and bigotry he suffered with it (Grevioux being black). Now, the emotional stakes and mythology within any of the films have never been more clear in all five movies as it has been here in Rise of the Lycans, where Lucian basically embodies a werewolf Spartacus. But it also means the only source of true personality in the film comes from an off-screen trivia item and it also doesn’t help its case that Grevioux is sidelined while the lead werewolf SLAVE is played by a white man, which means any racial commentary the Underworld franchise is interested in (and I think it’s oblivious given that the only two non-white actors I can recall in it are Grevioux and Robbie Gee off the top of my head and they’re both disposable characters) is dismissed outright.
Anyway, it’s not such a crime that Sheen has to lead the show because he’s easily the best performance in the film, although it’s clear he may not having as much fun as he did in here as he did with the first film. He sucked out all the scenery chewing he pulled off as the rock star performance he gave prior to becoming instead a scowling and angry figure full of obvious anger, matching Mitra because they’re the most facially pissed-off figures in the film and that’s their chemistry in a nutshell. Nighy, in the meantime, also clearly is not having much fun away and so his acting is the type that wants to burn the whole place down, trying to make himself as big and unwieldily theatrical as he can do it. Snarling and spitting and yelling, Nighy does it all. And these performances all clash with each other so that’s just another good thing that goes hella wrong.
Want another good thing Rise of the Lycans does right? No guns. It’s the 5th Century, so that means swordfights entirely. And while y’know, it’s still hella boring to make your werewolves and vampires just go at each other with swords rather than use their monstrous bodies, there it is and it at least lets the movie feel more gothic than nu-metal. Want to know how Rise ruins that shit anyway? Director Patrick Tatopoulos and cinematographer Ross Emery underlit that shit all to hell and still can’t spare any color beyond the most obnoxious blues. So, that’s a complete hell.
And it can’t be said enough: this is a story we already knew (especially its climactic moment), finished off with a fanservice Windows Movie Maker-looking epilogue that separates entirely from this individual film’s plot and makes NO SENSE to anybody who didn’t see the original films (as well as implying that Selene should not have been surprised by the revelation of Viktor in the first movie). Nobody needed to make Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, nor should anybody suffer it. We should all just go home. I just want to get this over with.