“Underworld: Rise of the Lycans”
At the Quality 16 & Showcase
Screen Gems

Courtest of Screen Gems

2 out of 5 Stars

Somebody get Michael Sheen a better agent.

Sheen (“Blood Diamond”) is a talented and likable actor capable of holding a stage and starring on the screen. But here’s the thing: He’s not quite the star he deserves to be. He held his own against Helen Mirren (“The Queen”) and Frank Langella (“Frost/Nixon”), and yet he keeps coming back to the “Underworld” franchise.

After a soft snub from the Academy for “Frost/Nixon,” Sheen’s back in the B-movie ghetto, doing what he has been doing since 2003: anchoring this goth movie franchise. “Underworld: Rise of the Lycans” is the third film in the modestly successful werewolf-versus-vampire series.

“Rise of the Lycans” is a prequel to the other “Underworld” movies. Sheen reprises the role of an enigmatic Lycan (werewolf) named Lucian. The back story is relatively simple: A long time ago, in some dark, underground vampire castle, Lycans were slaves to vampires. Originally, the Lycans were beings unable to turn into humans. Lucian was the first of his kind to be able to shift into human form.

Because of this unusual ability, Lucian is exploited to show how vampires can control their Lycan enemies. Add some hot wolf-on-vamp sex, the reappearance of a character or two from the first movie and some medieval violence, and you’ve got yourself another “Underworld” movie.

Does this third installation offer closure or justify the existence of the “Underworld” trilogy? Whatever. The people seeing “Rise of the Lycans” are likely action/gore junkies, and the film won’t disappoint.

For all its obvious faults — cheap effects, really bad editing and the gnawing sense that the film almost went straight to DVD — “Rise of the Lycans” isn’t all that bad. Scenes like a prison break and the final battle are predictable but enjoyable in a guilty pleasure sort of way. And Sheen works his ass off to make sure his audience can still believe in the chintzy movies he has been headlining. Given the sheer ludicrousness of the “Underworld” franchise, Sheen maintains a commendable sense of seriousness.

Bill Nighy (“Love, Actually”) is fantastic as Viktor, the ruthless king of the vampires. He’s nearly 60 and, with his bloodthirsty gusto, you can barely tell he has a stuntman for all of his action scenes. Roger Moore wasn’t even this active in his later James Bond flicks.

Still, this is a gory action-fantasy for nincompoops, and not much more. It’ll make the money it’s expected to make. But “Rise of the Lycans” is unlikely to amuse beyond its initial run and a couple of late-night cable screenings. You’ll forget it fast.

Michael Sheen can (and should) do much better. He’s got the chops. But why is he stuck in this strange limbo between B-lister and A-lister, making himself into something akin to a B-plus-lister? He’s brilliant in everything he does and deserves to act with George Clooney or under Martin Scorsese. He can do it. And dammit, if he can make people care about a werewolf — er, Lycan — for 90 minutes, then what’s stopping him from filling a great leading role? For now, we’ll just have to wait until 2011’s inevitable “Underworld: Live Free or Die Lycan.”

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