It's official now: Kate Beckinsale is a goddamn jinx. Her participation in a film from here on out will be taken as a sign that the project will likely be goat shit. I've never been overly fond of her anyway, but with "Van Helsing" having so little to engage the imagination or intellect, I was able to concentrate on how truly awful she is. Affecting the goofiest Carpathian accent this side of Svengooli and sporting makeup from the Tammy Faye Baker Collection, she poisons her every scene with faux solemnity and unintentional mirth. Which is a shame, since Stephen Sommers's films tend to take their cues from their leading players. What should be a fun monster mash, then, instead is sunk by the characters's gravity (not to mention their stupidity).
Of course, I can't say that Beckinsale's the only one to blame here (though I sure enjoy trying). Hugh Jackman can be a spry comic actor -- ask anyone who's seen "The Boy from Oz" -- but he can also be so serious as to suck the air out of a room. Guess which end of the spectrum he ends up on here. I shouldn't be too hard on him, though; he's just doing his job. The miscalculation lies with Sommers, who's responsible for penning this misbegotten mess. As written, the title character is a joyless, grim fugitive from justice who would probably tear his cheeks apart if he tried to smile -- Captain Prozac, Vampire Hunter. He's the kind of unlikeable hero you end up rooting for just because everyone else in the film is even more dour. Hard to believe that this leaden thing came from the same guy who gave us the nimbly overstuffed "Mummy" flicks. Those films were silly and cheerfully contrived. This one leaves silly and cheerful at home in favor of lots and lots of gray. (Apparently the sun never ever shines in Transylvania. The local weatherman's job must be a cakewalk.)
So yes, it's contrived. But then, aren't most summer films? Shouldn't I just lay back and forget about plot and take in the spectacle. Um, no. First off, the complete incoherency of the screenplay makes friggin' "Hellboy" look like a model of construction. It's like watching a series of random scenes that just happen to feature the same actors strung together in some cruel mockery of order. (Just try and count how many scenes clumsily attempt to provide exposition for what's supposed to be happening.) And second, the big action scenes we do get display such contempt for anyone in the audience who can rub two brain cells together that it's a wonder we all don't gather up torches and go hunting for Sommers in retaliation for inflicting this distended Frankenstein upon an unsuspecting world. The opening duel with Mr. Hyde might have been alright... if
it hadn't shown Hyde as a giant, thus making the first (and hopefully only) film to ever rip off "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen". Van Helsing's first battle with the three Brides of Dracula might have been exciting... if
the suspense wasn't negated by the fact that Van Helsing drops his super-crossbow so many times that one disengages with the action onscreen and begins to wonder if the weapon isn't coated in pig fat. The chase with the horse-drawn coach might have been worthwhile... if
the film hadn't out-and-out cheated in coming up with a ruse so dumb that swallowing it would require unhinging your jaw like a snake. And so on and so on. (I haven't even touched upon the brazen middle-finger idiocy that is the subplot with Beckinsale and her brother. It's toxic.)
And for a film so intent on sacrificing everything on the altar of spectacle, the visuals themselves ain't that hot. The color scheme is drab and monochromatic, which I suppose matches the characterization but still. The cinematography is competent but uninspired -- Sommers has never been much of a stylist, and his lack of flair seriously damages this one. 'Cause when you're bound and determined to shoot your film using only three colors, you better damn well at least have some fancy camera moves to keep me interested. As for the FX work... well, you'd think $140 million could buy some better stuff. For every effect that does work (I admit, the Frankenstein monster was pretty impressive, and not just because Sommers went with the articulate-patchwork-man approach), there's two that don't... like the damn werewolves. If I never see another CGI werewolf again, I'll be a happy guy. Let's face it -- even the glorified throw rug that was used during Oz's time of the month on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" looks superior to your average CGI wolf. It's just too difficult to render all that hair convincingly in a real-world environment. The CGI-aided transformation scenes, on the other hand, aren't bad... except that they're "borrowed" from Neil Jordan's "The Company of Wolves". And the vampire babies just look chintzy. (And, um, what the hell? Vampire babies? Since when can vampires procreate? They're friggin' dead.
That's what the pointy teeth are for -- making more vampires.)
So here it is: the opening salvo in what looks to be the worst summer-movie season in recent memory. It's artificial, it's noisy, it's big and stupid and bloated like anything (140 minutes! what the fuck!). I guess that makes it a perfect figurehead for a season which will also hand down "Catwoman" and "White Girls" and "The Day After Tomorrow" and "The Stepford Wives" and God knows what else. Before I wrap this up, I guess I should say something nice, so... um... well, the opening sequence was cute. And like I said, I liked the handling of the Frankenstein character. And... er... it's not as bad as the last Kate Beckinsale film I saw (the unspeakable "Underworld"... which, come to think of it, also had vampires and werewolves hanging out together... coincidence? I think not!). Any more than that, I can't give. Give this bastard a wide berth.