Historical events referenced in the first two installments of the Underworld franchise are brought to life in this passionless, idea-deprived prequel, which cribs its macro story from Spartacus, its more intimate one from Romeo and Juliet, and fails to stir up something interesting on either front. Punches are pulled and crucial beats are missing from a taboo vampire and werewolf romance, while most of the battlefield skirmishes consist of lazily repetitive footage of poorly rendered CGI wolves bounding across a blue-filtered countryside, ripping chunks of pixelated gore out of barely-seen victims. Made semi-tolerable by the knowing playfulness of a cast of recognizable British names, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans is still depressingly inert and simplistic throughout, which should prove annoying to Underworld fans who’ve mastered the series’ elaborate politicking and convoluted, eugenics-focused mythology, only to now find that effort paying zero dividends.
Kate Beckinsale, absent this go-round but sport enough to provide a sultry opening voiceover, is replaced by Rhona Mitra, a likable, rough-and-tumble actress with a thick, nutcracker jaw most recently glimpsed in Neil Marshall’s love letter to John Carpenter, Doomsday. She plays Sonja, the sword-swinging, tomboy daughter of Viktor, Bill Nighy’s prejudiced vampire elder from the first film whose inability to put down a 12th-century rebellion of werewolf slaves in his gloomy fiefdom (this film’s subject) is what touches off the centuries-long feud that consumes the series up to its present-day action. Nemesis to Viktor, secret lover to Sonja, and a beastly Braveheart to the wolfen brethren who rot by his side in Viktor’s jails throughout most of the film is Lucian, a role inexplicably played by cerebral, spindly Michael Sheen, who’s far better suited for slick-palmed operators than chest-beating men of action. One scene in particular in which Lucian attempts to pep-talk hulks twice his size while looking like Tony Blair-as-a-caveman borders on parody.
As Lucian and Sonja share their stolen moments and Viktor fumes in his sparse palace chamber over his daughter’s increasingly brazen defiance, the film attempts to build up a head of revolutionary steam, but with a cast of dozens at most, nothing major is in the offing and the storied Lycan rebellion should probably have remained the conversational filler it was in the previous films. Still, a franchise that has already laid as much track as Underworld needn’t be killed off by this one flimsy installment. It may prove to be the case that vampires and werewolves have simply reached the natural limits of their usefulness as primary monsters over the course of the series and if that’s the diagnosis, then for variety’s sake, maybe the next film can begin with a stranger in mummy wraps arriving on horseback from the next castle over.