For a bunch of movies essentially predicated on the lizard-brain pleasures of watching werewolves and vampires, like, totally whaling on each other, the Underworld series sure has a lot of complicated backstory. The frustrating thing is, it doesn't contribute much to the films. All the mythos gave Underworld and Underworld: Evolution an ornate backdrop for their Matrix-y slo-mo gunfights and chilly goth aesthetic, but they still suffered from simpleminded plots unworthy of all the detail.
The new prequel Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans continues the trend. Set in a vague medieval-ish past, it opens with a hefty chunk of history about how a clan of castle-dwelling vampires led by Bill Nighy (reprising his role from the first two films) bred up a race of intelligent werewolf slaves called Lycans. The Lycan progenitor, Michael Sheen (also back for the second time, and miles from his award-winning roles in the likes of The Queen and Frost/Nixon), is a growly but circumspect servant until he and Nighy's ass-kickin' vampire daughter (Rhona Mitra) fall into the kind of love that can only be expressed with a tasteful sex montage and a lot of glowery yearning. Together, they rebel against Nighy, with consequences that are eminently predictable.
And not just because there are only two ways for by-the-book Romeo & Juliet knockoffs to end: tragically or happily ever after. This story was already told in its entirety as part of Underworld's convoluted backstory. Lycans, helmed by longtime creature-designer and first-time director Patrick Tatopoulos, just repeats the tale again at feature length, as a sequence of face-offs, fights, and floggings that lead to an ending which Underworld fans—the only people likely to care about installment number three—already know. So what's the point?
Well, mostly it's about another round of that chilly gothic whaling. But all the usual elements seem halfhearted this time out, thanks to generic sets, flat cinematography, boring one-dimensional characters, an insultingly shallow and charisma-free central love affair, werewolves that look like rubber-masked men in ape suits, and so forth. The big bright spots are Sheen, slumming it with passionate vigor, and Nighy, who sucks the blood from the scenery with enunciation that sounds like he's gingerly talking around a mouthful of caltrops. If everyone else threw themselves into their roles so vividly… well, Rise Of The Lycans would still be clumsy, ephemeral, and wholly unnecessary. But at least there'd be a few more surprises.