Friday, July 23, 2004

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But seriously, Hugh- what's my motivation in this scene?

Longtime readers may recall that waaaay back in March of 2003 I posted an entry about a news item I had spied on Ain't It Cool News about the upcoming wannabe Hugh Jackman potential franchise film Van Helsing, stating that it would either be (as I so cleverly put it) "either a colossal cluster fuck or one of the greatest action/adventure/horror/fantasy films ever". So, of course, the final result, which I saw Saturday for one dollar, was neither.

I'm sure most of you reading this are familiar with the Van Helsing of print, screen, stage and film so far, mostly personified by Peter Cushing's reserved English gentleman, who was always ready to whip out a silver crucifix on a moment's notice. Anthony Hopkins gave us an eccentric, almost unhinged Doctor, in a lot of ways closer to Bram Stoker's original conception than either Cushing or the Lugosi film's Van Helsing, played stiffly, but with a reserved kind of competent cool, by Edward Van Sloan. Hugh Jackman's Van Helsing is nothing like any of these portrayals; he's a grim, quiet man of action who has no memory of who he really is or how he came to be a supernatural monster hunter for the Vatican, all decked out in his finest Solomon Kane-like black leather. All heroes have to wear black leather in the movies, you know- it's as ubituquous now as white hats used to be. Turns out he has some connection to Count Dracula and the vampiric goings-on in Transylvania, which comes in handy because that's where the Pope sends him next.

Basically, this flick was like James Bond, Raiders of the Lost Ark, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Moulin Rouge! all mashed together in a big lump. It's big, loud, and relentless as it hurtles from this battle to that battle to this cliff-hanger to that cliff-hanger, helter-skelter, as if it's afraid we'll get bored if it gets quiet and leave. Kind of like an overactive child throwing a temper tantrum. The overriding concern here seems to be a prototype for the next potential Universal Theme Park attraction, and certainly to establish a franchise of some sort. There's not much room for wit or subtlety...but obviously we're not supposed to expect that sort of thing from a movie like this, are we?

That being said, there are a few good ideas in the script, and some very nice production design is evident throughout. Someone in the decision making process had his heart in the right place, because the movie looks good, and there aren't too many groanworthy moments. I was honestly surprised at the ending, which kinda goes against the grain of this sort of adventure film. The CGI are pretty good, too- rarely did the action involving Dracula's annoying vampire brides, the Frankenstein monster, or the werewolves look excessively stiff or fake. There were some rousing set pieces, like the skirmish between Van Helsing, Beckinsale's character and the vampire brides in the village, or a humorous fight between VH and Mr. Hyde, who looks like he walked over from the set of LXG.

Jackman isn't asked to do a whole lot, acting-wise, and that's pretty much what he does. He projects intensity, which is all the filmmakers were looking for. But he looks like Olivier, Brando and Cary Grant all rolled into one compared to his co-star Kate Beckinsale, who is a lovely woman but does not possess one ounce of acting ability in her shapely body. She couldn't act annoyed in a traffic jam. Richard Roxburgh, the wimpy Duke in Moulin Rouge!, is almost unrecognizable and often unbearable as Dracula. He overacts throughout, and adopts a thick accent that gets overbearing sometimes. He does have some effective moments here and there, though, to be fair. Comic relief is provided by David Wenham as Carl, who functions like Bond's Q to Van Helsing, providing him with neat almost-anachronistic gadgets like the rapid-fire arrow shooter you see in the picture above, which he uses to great effect in the aforementioned village scene. He gets some funny lines in here and there, plus gets to pitch woo with a cute villager, so he winds up as the coolest character by default.

So even as my brain told me I shouldn't, I was entertained by Van Helsing. It's overblown and as overstuffed as Beckinsale's snug corset, but it's never boring and, wonder of wonders, doesn't insult the intelligence all that much. In a lot of ways, it's a energetic spin on those moldy old monsters of yore, but I just wish it hadn't been so eager to be a rollercoaster movie and nothing more. I'll give it a B+, but remember that I only paid a dollar to see it. If you spend more than that, you might be a bit less charitably inclined than I.

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