As a prequel intended to complete a trilogy, fans can rest assured that Rise of the Lycans looks, feels, and plays out like the rest of the franchise, an amalgamation of legends that finally, if just barely, grew into something unique.
The sons of the first immortal, Corvinus, became the founders of two mystical bloodlines. One was bitten by the bat and became vampire, while the second was bitten by the wolf to become lycan. While the vampires became cold, calculating and aristocratic, the lycans became unbridled savagery itself until one was finally born in human form. This shapeshifter, named Lucien (Michael Sheen), was spared by the vampire king, Viktor (Bill Nighy), to spawn a slave race of workers and protectors for the vampires. While Viktor prized Lucien above all his other lycan, Lucien grew up without loving parents who could have told him stories regarding the consequences of a lowly slave taking an interest in the king’s daughter…
The real surprises in this prequel are in the details. With the writers of the first two Underworld films still on board, the story unfolds as everyone knew it should (instead of completely changing all the plot points, George Lucas). Instead of a flash back, the prequel spins the story anew as if unheard before, packing it with enough battle sequences and signature imagery that there is little doubt that Underworld begins here. While the original film borrowed from the best of the recent sci-fi and horror genre, this prequel bookends the original with its sequel (Evolution) so well that the three films presented together are actually better than each of the trilogy’s three individual parts.
Rise of the Lycans (short for lycanthropes or werewolves, of course) viewed alone invokes memories of a less-artistic Brotherhood of the Wolf. Through blue filters, stormy skies, mud, rain, castles, and dungeons, sides are taken and blood is drawn. Having the cast stocked with the original players is wonderful as well, particularly Bill Nighy with his scowling gaunt face and ice-blue eyes. It’s difficult to believe that Michael Sheen just played David Frost opposite Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon, but since Nighy is tasked with showing ultimate control, Sheen rises to the task by showing ultimate rage. Doomsday’s Rhona Mitra fleshes out the cast as Viktor’s daughter Sonja, easily the inspiration for Viktor’s future new favorite, Selene (Kate Beckinsale).
With the stopping point of this film literally ending where the original leads off, there’s not really any reason to continue with additional films. Besides the fact that practically every question has been answered, actress Kate Beckinsale has expressed very little interest in returning to the key role of Selene. That said, director (of the first two films) and co-writer for the series Len Wiseman has suggested a television series (how about “Underworld: Chronicles?”), telling smaller stories that fill in the gaps all across the now-complete time line. Not the worst idea, but for now, the Underworld series has managed to accomplish something very difficult in cinema today: distinguishing its own identity in spite of failing to obscure its inspirations.
(a three skull recommendation out of four)