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While Underworld: Evolution greatly tarnished the reputation of the Underworld franchise with a lame 16% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes (the original Underworld received a much better 31% rating), fans were apparently happy enough with the action to forgive the worthless script and Underworld: Evolution ended up a financial success. It was inevitable that another installment of the franchise would be filmed. In January 2009 we got Underworld: Rise of the Lycans. So, is it any good? Fortunately, the answer is yes.
Rise of the Lycans is a prequel to the original Underworld. As such, Kate Beckinsale does not return (except for a few seconds of reused Underworld footage at the very end), instead, our protagonist is Lucien, the leader of the lycans in the original film. Michael Sheen reprises his role as Lucien and does a damn good job at portraying the oppressed lycan who is hopelessly in love with his master's daughter and ends up leading a revolution to free the lycans from enslavement by the vampires. Also returning is the awesome Bill Nighy as Viktor, who is the lead villain of the film from start to finish. Nighy does an excellent job at portraying the ruthless vampire overlord who is conflicted about the controversial decision which ultimately triggers the lycan revolt (i.e., the decision of sentencing his own daughter to death for bearing a lycan's child). His daughter Sonja (played by Rhona Mitra, whom some of you may remember from her very small role in Kevin Bacon's best movie ever, Hollow Man) is not much of a replacement for Selene but fortunately the script doesn't try to make her one. Sonja is basically the feisty daughter of the vampire king who wants to be a warrior while his father wants to keep her out of harm's way, which works well enough for the movie.
The story is once again very simple, and for those of you who saw the original Underworld, it's also very much predictable. The story follows the forbidden romance of Lucien and Sonja which inevitably ends in tragedy after Viktor learns that his daughter is pregnant with Lucien's child and orders her execution. Lucien manages to break free and lead a lycan revolution against the vampires. Considering that we basically know how the story ends, Rise of the Lycans should have a hard time keeping the viewers invested in what is happening. Yet the movie pulls this off surprisingly well due to the well written script and the excellent use of the support cast. Besides Lucien and Viktor, we get two other returning characters who help a great deal in establishing a dark, medieval atmosphere. Raze from the original film returns as Lucien's lycan friend, while Andreas Tanis from Underworld: Evolution finally gets the screen time he should have had in Evolution. Tanis is the scribe of the vampires and a cunning bastard with his own agenda. The treacherous scribe helps Lucien and Sonja for his own personal reasons and manages to keep his involvement in secret from the vampire overlord all along. His presence in the movie gives the story a good amount of mistery since we barely know anything about him at this stage, which is a welcome thing in a prequel. Stephen Mackintosh reprises his role as Tanis and he does a great job. However, Rise of the Lycans is basically dominated by the overwhelming performance of Bill Nighy as the vampire overlord Viktor. He pretty much steals the show this time around, and it's no wonder the movie poster depicts him sitting in his throne.
The action scenes in the movie also manage to live up to the legacy of the first Underworld. They also provide a nice change of style since, due to the medieval setting, there are no gunfights in Rise of the Lycans. While we get to see crossbows used frequently, the action scenes are dominated by close combat such as sword fights and brawls between the vampires and the lycans, all of which are well choreographed.
Overall, Rise of the Lycans succeeds at reclaiming the lost glory of the Underworld franchise. While not as good as the first film, it is what Evolution is not but should have been: Rise of the Lycans is a truly worthy sequel to the original Underworld (critics liked it almost as much as the original, giving it a 30% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, just 1% less than Underworld). Fortunately it was also successful financially such that yet another sequel was made. This is Underworld: Awakening, due to be released to cinemas 20 January 2012. We will review the movie right after the opening weekend. Will it be any good? We hope so. Awakening takes place several years after Evolution and brings Selene back into the center of the story. She finds herself in a world were the human race has discovered vampires and lycans and is busy trying to exterminate the immortal species. This is a simple story which opens the door to a lot of possibilities, such as the vampires and the lycans joining forces against the common enemy, or the alliance crumbling due to treason on part of someone who can't forget the centuries old quarrel between the two immortal races. Still, they dropped the ball with Evolution so it is possible they'll drop it again. We are hopeful though, because J. Michael Straczynski (of Babylon 5 fame) co-wrote the script and we have never seen anything by Straczynski that wasn't awesome. Hopefully Awakening will be no different.
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