Friday, May 14, 2004

'Van Helsing'

—Originally published 5.14.04

"Van Helsing" is a mildly entertaining yet instantly forgettable summer action flick.

Hugh Jackman, who became a star as fan-favorite mutant Wolverine in the "X-Men" series, covers similar territory here as a monster-hunting mix of Indiana Jones, James Bond and Batman (where does he get those wonderful toys?).

Jackman had to be convinced to take the role but gives a solid turn as a troubled hitman who works for The Order, a clandestine group of Vatican priests secretly working to keep the world's bad guys at bay. Helsing is their No. 1 gun, and in this film he tracks Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, Wolf Man, Frankenstein's monster and the leader of the pack -- Dracula.

Richard Roxburgh is simply awful as the Count -- as are the actresses who portray his three brides -- while Kate Beckinsale (who plays fellow Order hunter Anna Valerious) is wasted on painful lines of dialogue. I understand writer/director Stephen Sommers was hearkening back to the melodrama of classic monster movies, but he doesn't maintain that tone throughout the entire movie, so most of the secondary characters stand out terribly against Jackman's low-key, sardonic performance.

Sommers is definitely the one to blame for all of "Helsing's" transgressions. The man behind both "Mummy" flicks essentially made the same movie again, only at least this time had the good sense to cast a lead actor who could carry the water. Describing the plot would be a waste of time, because it's somewhat incomprehensible. Suffice it to say Dracula (circa 1888) is trying to take over the world -- or at least Transylvania -- by hatching thousands of offspring and letting them loose to drink their fill of blood. It's Helsing's job to stop them, of course.

The soundtrack is cranked up to 11 and the film is set at breakneck pace essentially from the start. Almost every shot features some sort of special effect from George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic, but ILM still hasn't caught up with Peter Jackson's Weta wizardry featured in "The Lord of the Rings." Special effects in "Helsing" are painfully obvious because its computer-generated characters have no gravity (Mr. Hyde is basically a demented version of Shrek). This becomes especially troublesome during the film's climactic battle, fought between two giant creatures cooked up on a hard drive at Skywalker Ranch.

Still, with all that said, "Van Helsing" is not as horrible a movie as most critics lead you to believe. Jackman is cool as always and he does get to play with some fun weapons, including a wicked rapid-fire crossbow and two gauntlets sporting spinning blades. As long as you don't sweat the details, the story is engaging enough to hold interest throughout, accompanied by some nice action sequences and several jump-in-your-seat scares (although they get repetitive less than an hour into the movie).

What I saw from most "Van Helsing" reviews were critics taking pot-shots at a movie obviously geared for the summer -- not Oscar -- season. "Helsing" is nowhere near as bad as last year's "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" (a true "F" if there ever was one) or "The Mummy," for that matter. Keep expectations low, and you'll have a good time.

Grade: C-

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