Film Review: Underworld: Rise of the Lycans

Kate Beckinsale might be gone, but the grudge war rages on in "Underworld: Rise of the Lycans," which finds more life left than would be expected in the darkly stylized if dramatically flawed vampires vs. werewolves saga.

Thanks to sturdy performances by holdovers Michael Sheen and Bill Nighy as well as tidy, unfussy direction by first-timer Patrick Tatopoulos, the creature designer who is taking the reins from originator Len Wiseman, the third installment in the successful franchise should be to the fan base's lycan.

Taking the story back about a millennium or so, screenwriters Danny McBride, Dirk Blackman and Howard McCain trace the origins of the longstanding blood feud between the powerful, vampire Death Dealers, ruled by the ruthless Viktor (Nighy), and the persecuted werewolves, led by Lucian (Sheen), the Lycan who is Viktor's de facto slave.

Driving an even greater wedge between the two factions is the forbidden, clandestine love affair between Lucian and Viktor's self-assured daughter Sonja (Rhona Mitra).

That obvious Romeo and Juliet vibe actually is a good fit since there's always been something of Shakespearean bent to the "Underworld" pictures.

There also has been, unfortunately, a tendency toward stone-faced, smirk-inducing dialogue which has, for the most part, been banished this time out, allowing the action to continue along its uncluttered, focused path.

Series newcomer Mitra, for reasons that will become apparent at the end of the film, bears a fittingly passing resemblance to Beckinsale, who played the part of warrior vampire Selene in the first two installments, and there's a tangible spark between her and the always effective Sheen. Call 'em Frost/Vixen.

Shooting in "Lord of the Rings" territory, namely New Zealand, the production is visibly more atmospheric than its predecessors -- which combined to gross $114 million domestically -- while the understated CGI blends in neatly with all the old-school stunt work.

Opened: Friday, Jan. 23 (Screen Gems)
Production companies: Lakeshore Entertainment, Sketch Films
Cast: Michael Sheen, Bill Nighy, Rhona Mitra
Director: Patrick Tatopoulos
Screenwriters: Danny McBride, Dirk Blackman, Howard McCain
Executive producers: Skip Williamson, Henry Winterstern, James McQuaide, Eric Reid, Beth DePatie
Producers: Tom Rosenberg, Gary Lucchesi, Len Wiseman, Richard Wright
Director of photography: Ross Emery
Production designer: Dan Hennah
Music: Paul Haslinger
Editor: Peter Amundson
Rated R, 93 minutes
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