As far as franchises go, the 'Underworld' series is neither fish nor foul.
When trailers for the first 'Underworld' appeared in 2003, it looked like something special – an updating of the vampire and werewolf mythos for the nihilistic post-millennial audience. With skintight leather, double-fisted guns, and moody lighting, it carried with it a whole lot of promise, as an exhilarating meld of the horror and action genres.
Except that once it was released, rather than revealing itself as some sort of visionary leap forward, it actually proved to be derivative and (worst of all) dull. Someone had seen 'The Matrix,' been impressed with its aesthetics (which 'The Matrix' had borrowed from a dozen influences itself), and decided to apply it to this half-baked conceit.
The few pleasures of the first 'Underworld' were resigned to the principle cast members – Kate Beckinsale as the vampire woman caught between the feuding monsters (for the love of a very boring hybrid in the form of 'Felicity's Scott Speedman), Bill Nighy as the fey leader of the vampires, and Michael Sheen as the leader of the werewolves. And people seemed to like them too, as the box office facilitated a sequel. The surviving cast members were brought back for another go-around of dimly lit gunfights and rubber monsters for the utterly forgettable 'Underworld: Evolution.' (I do remember it had a monster with wings. That was kind of cool.)
This brings me (somehow) to 'Underworld: Rise of the Lycans,' a lavish medieval prequel to the original films. Instead of the original films' director Len Wiseman, who left the series to concentrate on 'Live Free or Die Hard,' production designer and creature effects supervisor Patrick Tatopoulos took over the directorial duties.
'Rise of the Lycans' is, more or less, an expansion of 'Underworld: Evolution’s prologue, which was pretty much the coolest thing about 'Underworld: Evolution' (besides the winged guy). That short sequence flashed back to medieval times and, well, it showed pretty much what the original 'Underworld' movie portrayed – vampires and werewolves killing each other, except this time they were in armor and had crossbows instead of automatic weapons.
Amazingly, they managed to convince Michael Sheen to return as Lucian, the first of the Lycans , who are sort of like werewolves except they can mimic human form. (Straight up werewolves are just scary monsters all the time.) From birth he's immediately enslaved by the snooty vampire upper class (led, once more, by a hammy Bill Nighy as Viktor), and so begins a kind of 'Spartacus'/'Gladiator' slave revolt story that culminates in a Harreyhausen-esque werewolf siege of the vampire castle.
It should be noted that the obvious 'Romeo & Juliet' overlay (a staple of the series) is again represented here – this time in Lucian's steamy forbidden romance with Viktor's daughter (foxy Rhona Mitra as Sonja). This doomed affair lays the groundwork for the bitter feud between the werewolves and vampires that we’ve watched play out in the previous chapters.
And, getting back to my thesis, is the problem of the 'Underworld' series, which is only amplified by this installment. They aren’t really action movies, because the action is stilted and derivative. They aren’t really horror movies, because they hold back on the horror to focus on the aforementioned action sequences. And they aren’t really vampire romance stories (their own bodice ripping subgenre), because, well, the romances just fizzle.
For 'Lycans,' they've chosen to focus on this medieval angle, which has the actors delivering their lines like they're performing Shakespeare in the park, while dressed in Renaissance Fair costumes, with tons of rubber monsters biting each other (there is slightly more emphasis on horror) all the while shot in the series' distinctive blue tint. Some of it is fun, and it was nice to see the werewolves point of view on this silly feud (which is still muddy), but those moments are few and far between.
Overall, 'Underworld: Rise of the Lycans' is tedious, repetitive, and unaffecting. Tatopoulos, in his first job as director, has limited skill, either aping Wiseman's approach or going for an even more stilted style, which has all the finesse and elegance of a Sci-Fi Channel original film. Even in the film's calamitous last act, the filmmakers fail to truly bring an epic, awe-inspiring 'Lord of the Rings'-style war of the monsters to the big screen. Instead, I was reminded of Bruce Campbell slaying stop motion skeletons at the end of 'Army of Darkness.'
Like the previous two 'Underworld' films, this movie is blue. There's a solid blue tint to the movie, clearly the work of post-production digital color processing that overwhelms any attempt at visual nuance. It's like making an intricate model and then slathering it in blue paint.
That said, the 2.40:1 widescreen transfer (it’s a AVC MPEG-4 codec on a dual-layered BD50 disc) is pretty good. The grain levels are low, and blacks are deep and the textures of both the vampires’ palace and the intricate costumes and monsters stand out despite the blue wash.
Things look good for the most part, but there’s definitely some digital noise and macro-blocking, particularly in the frenzied final fight between the vampires and werewolves. Things got so bad that I started to wonder if that was red blood piercing the picture, or if there was some kind of weird color transference going on. The sequence, which is supposed to be the climax to the picture, just looked awful. These kind of issues, which some might call minor, are to me unforgivable. People look to these kind of glossy, high-energy action pictures to show off their home theater set-ups and will sometimes buy the movie sight unseen. What’s more is that it's a new movie, with a clear digital process, and should be flawless. The video should be the high point of this release. It's not.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack is also mostly excellent but seems to get chewed up at the same point in the movie (more on that in a minute).
The mix is muscular and atmospheric. Dialogue sounds sharp and clean in the sometimes cacophonous mix (the quality of the dialogue is another matter altogether). Bass thunders during the action sequences, giving you a nice rumble, and all channels are worked vigorously to present an all-enveloping sonic landscape.
Except, once again, in that final battle sequence. Up until then, the action sequences, while sometimes getting a bit messy, never bled into each other. You could still identify every sword swing or werewolf growl. In that final battle sequence though, the clarity of these earlier moments is abandoned and there are some crunchy crackles in the track, which lessens the sequence’s dramatic impact and your ability to audibly orient yourself.
Still, it's a mostly solid mix and the problems in that last act aren't as glaring or problematic as on the video side.
Other audio options included are French Dolby TrueHD 5.1, Spanish and Portugese Dolby Digital 5.1, and English, Spanish, French, Portugese and English for the hearing impaired subtitles.
A brief vent: when accessing any of the special features via the "pop up menu," a large grey slab of text pops up on the screen and covers the majority of the picture. IT IS SO ANNOYING. Isn't one of Blu-ray's selling points the fact that you can access all of this cool stuff while still watching the movie?
Honestly, if you liked the other two 'Underworld' pictures, you're probably going to enjoy 'Rise of the Lycans.' Unfortunately, I am not one of those people, and find the series a half-baked bore. This home video release features solid picture, audio, and supplements, but it has a tendency to disappoint, which keeps it from being a technically awesome disc. For these reasons, this one is for fans only.