2004 - PG-13 - 145 Mins.
|Director: Stephen Sommers
|Producer: Bob Ducsay
|Written By: Stephen Sommers
|Starring: Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh, Elena Anaya, David Wenham
|Review by: Harrison Cheung
‘Van Helsing’ is the opening salvo in the annual summer movie wars. A big noisy mess of a movie, ‘Van Helsing’ comes from writer/director Stephen Sommers who has made a career of re-engineering and re-working old B-movie action-serials like ‘The Mummy,’ ‘The Jungle Book’ and ‘The Mummy Returns.’
Hugh Jackman stars as Van Helsing. Those familiar with Bram Stoker’s Dracula will recall that Professor Van Helsing was a vampire hunter, played by Anthony Hopkins in the 1992 version by Francis Ford Coppola. In Sommers’ movie, Gabriel Van Helsing is one part Indiana Jones, one part James Bond, a secret agent of the Vatican assigned to hunt down supernatural evil.
It’s no surprise that Van Helsing is a new hybrid of classic action characters. Just as Sommers made Brendan Fraser into an action hero in ‘The Mummy’ – which was very much like a remake of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ which in turn drew inspiration from the 1930s movie serials – Van Helsing has become a dark avenger, supposedly hated by the rest of the world as an assassin, but much needed by the Church to fight off encroaching evil.
Set in the 1800s, the heavy borrowing of classic (and therefore royalty-free) characters in ‘Van Helsing’ is reminiscent of last year’s disastrous ‘League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.’ The movie opens with a black/white revamp of the ‘enraged villagers’ ending scene from ‘Frankenstein’ to set-up the story. Professor Frankenstein, portrayed by the much-missed Samuel West (‘Howard’s End’), has unwittingly created life in the form of his monster, Frankenstein. But Count Dracula has funded his research for unclear but no doubt nefarious reasons. From the very moment Professor Frankenstein bellows, “It’s alive!!!!” you know this movie is made for some laughs.
When the audience is introduced to Van Helsing, he’s hunting down Mr. Hyde (as in Jekyll and Hyde), a huge CGI effect rendered with a lot more cartoonish gusto than the Mr. Hyde in ‘League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.’ Van Helsing is soon summoned to the Vatican where, James Bond Q style, he’s in the huge underground research facility where monks, mullahs, priests and a friar are developing weapons.
Van Helsing’s next assignment is to go to Transylvania to help the last 2 remaining members of the Valerious family to kill Count Dracula.
‘Van Helsing’ is absolutely enjoyable as a popcorn movie with eye-popping effects that clearly come from the same CGI animation house that did ‘The Mummy.’ Horror movie purists may bristle at how familiar names have mutated into strange new characters, but high art, this is not. Hugh Jackman is not particularly charismatic enough to make the lead character interesting. His best known work as Wolverine in 'The X-Men' demonstrated his ability to brood in an ensemble. And fortunately, Sommers also surrounds his dour hero with a great cast. Richard Roxburgh (perhaps best known as the Duke in ‘Moulin Rouge’) plays Dracula as if he’s spoofing Gary Oldman’s Dracula. David Wenham (Faramir from ‘Lord of the Rings’) has the thankless role of being Van Helsing’s humble friar-sidekick.
But this movie truly belongs to the women.
Kate Beckinsale, who made a vamp of herself in ‘Underworld,’ bristles as Anna Valerious, a driven woman with skin-tight costumes who could probably kick Trinity’s ass. Even with the corny dialogue, Beckinsale always delivers as a seething woman with a mission. Fortunately, Sommers resists any of the cliché love interest between Beckinsale and Jackman but they still spark on screen as the alpha male and female. And we get lots of campy relief and eerie eye candy with Elena Anaya, Silvia Colloca, and Josie Maran as Dracula’s 3 murderous brides who effortlessly morph into winged banshees, hanging vampires and catty femme fatales. (The PG-13 rated movie leaves all the creatures without genitalia.)
Speaking of eye candy, Anna’s brother is portrayed by Will Kemp, the very hot-in-England male model/dancer who’s best known for shaking his booty in a Gap commercial last Christmas.
There’s a thin line between self-aware dry humor and just plain cheeseball camp and ‘Van Helsing’ happily pogos back and forth. My favorite line? When Beckinsale feistily scolds her would-be murderer, in her hammy Transylvanian-accented English, "If you vant to kill someone, you shouldn't talk too much!"
The story line gets convoluted with Dracula’s experiment that somehow involves his progeny, and all of that stunning cinematography and special effects go to waste when you’re moving a mile a minute. There's also a memorable Budapest ballroom scene that looked like it was going to be a vampire's version of Cirque de Soleil but ended all too quickly. Such is the curse of overloading the narrative.
For all of Spielberg’s faults with his 1980s movies, he remains the master storyteller; aptly knowing when to pause with quiet creepy moments to give you a scare about curses or ancient legends or the lapping ocean in a sea of sharks. Sommers may have the technology to deliver the look but he's no Spielberg; ‘Van Helsing’ is often too manic to pace the audience’s cheers and fears.
Still, this is a fun movie that’s best appreciated on the big screen with its dazzling visual effects and sumptuous settings. Its relatively long running time of 145 minutes just flies by. A sequel is guaranteed. And it’s also a thrill to see some old movie monsters demonstrate that they still have the ability to make you jump out of your seat. Do I hear a new Universal Studios Ride?