The battle between pleather-bound vampires and scrunchy-faced werefolk rages on, this time in a medieval setting, in Underworld: Rise of the Lycans. This time, FX guru Patrick Tatopoulos takes the directing reins and, in doing so, crafts what could be the best that the series has to offer. While still far too serious for its own good, this entry manages to thrill without falling back on its second-rate Matrix roots. With no frenetic gunplay and tight close-ups of latex-covered rumps, the picture is freer to focus on its mythology, which was always the best thing the B-flick series had going for it. Boosted by a fantastic performance by Bill Nighy, Lycans has just enough bite to keep one interested as the backstory is fleshed out in this singular take on the clash between the top two creatures of the night.
Filling in the tale first told in the original Underworld flick, the prequel recalls the time when vampires had enslaved the half-man, half-beasts known as the Lycans. The plot picks up where Viktor (Bill Nighy), the leader of this particular bloodsucking tribe, spares the life of the first Lycan he encounters, Lucien (Michael Sheen). As the years go on, the vampires take advantage of this new race by breeding them as their slaves and protectors. As fate would have it, Viktor's daughter, Sonja (Rhona Mitra), falls in love with Lucien, which inevitably leads to the revolt of the Lycans, with Viktor on one side and the forbidden union of his kin and Lucien on the other.
As with many prequels, the trick is keeping an audience's interest despite them already knowing how it will end. In this case, Rise of the Lycans is fairly successful. The change to a medieval setting certainly helps things, as do the meaty acting chops of its warring leads, Sheen and Nighy. Mitra once again does a formidable job, as does the impossibly deep-voiced Kevin Grevioux, as the future co-leader of his monster tribe. Though the story does fall more into archetypal forbidden love territory, it's the cast -- as well as the razzle-dazzle FX -- that really keeps one's interest. The inclusion of straight-up werewolves is a big plus, even if the difference between them and Lycans isn't nearly as clear as it should be.
One the downside, the picture is really missing that vampiric bite that it should have. While previous entries were hampered by their bloodsuckers manning handguns, this picture similarly falls back on swords and armor to get its toothy villains through the fight. Thankfully, one should know what to expect out of this series by now, which is partly what works best for this third feature. By switching things up just enough, Tatopoulos keeps the acting true while delivering on the massive action one would expect from hoards of lycanthropes storming castles filled with debutant vamps. While it may not be "Citizen Canine," Rise of the Lycans tells its tale competently and without the derivative nature of its predecessors. While the genre world will still pine for a rock 'em-sock 'em brawl between the pillars of the monster world after seeing this, they could certainly do a whole lot worse than what's on display here.