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Dustin Putman

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Van Helsing (2004)
2 Stars

Directed by Stephen Sommers
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh, David Wenham, Shuler Hensley, Elena Anaya, Silvia Colloca, Josie Maran, Kevin J. O'Connor, Will Kemp, Alun Armstrong, Tom Fisher, Samuel West, Robbie Coltrane
2004 – 125 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for violence, frightening images, and sensuality).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, May 8, 2004.

There could be worse—far worse—ways for the big, special effects-laden summer movie season to begin than "Van Helsing." Like 1999's mediocre "The Mummy" and 2001's just as bad "The Mummy Returns." What do all three films have in common? Writer-director Stephen Sommers, an excessively mainstream moviemaker who never met a CGI shot or badly-timed bit of comic relief he didn't like. "Van Helsing" falls victim to these same hindrances, but this time it sort of works in spite of its bombastic, overblown nature. Whereas "The Mummy" pictures were boring and tedious in the most wearisome of popcorn flick ways, "Van Helsing" is like a rollercoaster ride that doesn't want to stop, and thank goodness. It's a 125-minute, third act-style climax, a fantasy-action pic so fast-paced and visually dazzling that it eventually wears you into submission. Yes, it's junk, and the screenplay is an unbelievable mess, and the one-liners and pratfalls are inappropriate and desperately unfunny, but it remains a solid entertainment while it lasts.

With the character of the Mummy having worn out his welcome, director Sommers turns his attention to the other classic Universal monsters, piling them one after the other into a boiling pot and stirring vigorously. The title character, Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman), reimagined from Bram Stoker's "Dracula" as a younger, more suave hero, is a brim-hatted vampire hunter questioning the reason behind what has become his life's work. A sufferer of memory loss, he is assured that if he travels to the dank European country of Transylvania to kill Dracula (Richard Roxburgh), vampiric son of Satan, his past will be revealed. Once there, Van Helsing meets Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale), the last surviving memory of her family's lineage who hasn't fallen victim to Dracula and his three vicious vampire brides (Elena Anaya, Silvia Colloca, Josie Maran). With the villagers living in constant fear, Van Helsing teams up with Anna to find a way to not only kill Dracula, but also the Wolfman and Frankenstein's Monster (Shuler Hensley), who turns out to not be the dangerous creature they expected.

Combining all of the main classic movie monsters into one big-budget visual-effects extravaganza is filled with boundless possibilities, but Stephen Sommers' screenplay pays no attention to whether such a premise makes sense or not. He doesn't care much about the characters, either, and the rare moments where he attempts to give them exposition and development are laughably amateurish (Anna's wistful, out-of-the-blue comment about never having seen the ocean is so random it inspires unintended giggles). Fortunately, dialogue is sparse in a motion picture that only cares about one thing—cutting to the chase. "Van Helsing" breathlessly jumps from one gigantic action set-piece to the next, from beginning to end, and nary a shot goes by that isn't jam-packed with awe-inspiring computer-generated backdrops and less impressive, but still entertaining computer-generated creatures. There are times, in fact, where it seems one is watching an animated film that just so happens to have some live-action actors mixed in.

The opening sequence, a gloriously rich and stylish black-and-white ode to the classic 1930's Universal monster pictures that documents the creation of Frankenstein's monster and Dr. Frankenstein's fiery death at the hands of the frightened townspeople, is deceptive. So stunningly beautiful and atmospheric is this eye-catching prologue that it comes as a disappointment when the frames become colorized and the film transforms into just another conventional blockbuster wannabe where plot, characters, and plausibility take a back seat to the magic of modern computer technology.

Plausibility, in fact, is nonexistent. Human characters clearly without superhero powers jump through windows, swing across ravines, and suffer giant falls, only to land on their feet and continue battle without even the faintest of injuries. In a too-obvious bid for the sacred PG-13 rating, the naked, winged vampire brides lack nipples on their breasts and are androgynous down below, and when they turn back into normal-looking women, clothes magically appear on them. Who knew vampires had the power to make clothes disappear and reappear at whim? And how convenient for the werewolves to tear off all their human clothes following a transformation, only to still have on underwear when they turn back into men. It may be nitpicking, but such criticisms are valid when a film's content is so cheaply jeopardized in favor of an MPAA rating.

As the brooding, butt-kicking Van Helsing, Hugh Jackman exudes none of the charisma he showed as Wolverine in 2000's "X-Men" and 2003's "X2." As Anna, Kate Beckinsale (2003's "Underworld") is better, capably handling a tricky European accent—and one that sounded hideous in the trailers, no less—while fitting the bill as Van Helsing's tough female companion and possible love interest. Her's is the only performance that really works, save for the creepy vampire brides whose menacing cackle indelibly reminds of the possessed women in Sam Raimi's "The Evil Dead." Richard Roxburgh (2003's "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen") is embarrassingly bad as Count Dracula, and threatens to sink his every scene with over-the-top histrionics.

With so much stacked against it, there is no good reason why "Van Helsing" should work as well as it ultimately does. Still, the film is a masterpiece of mood and visual inspiration, decked to the nine's with awesome gothic art direction and production design, and stunning settings that spring to life, prove just how advanced today's CGI effects have become. The action sequences, which take up most of the film, are exuberantly shot and edited, none more so than the attack of the vampire brides on the horse-and-carriage as it made its way through the gloomy, foreboding woods. And the relentless, pounding music score by Alan Silvestri (2003's "Identity") keeps the energy high when it could have easily become exhausting.

Make no bones about it, "Van Helsing" is as far-fetched as movies come, but then, what else could be expected from a film that features Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Wolfman, evil midget minions, thousands of attacking baby vampires, and three fanged babes who fly around the sky. If you walk into "Van Helsing" ready to scrutinize its plot particulars, savor its dialogue, and get involved in three-dimensional characters, writer-director Stephen Sommers makes it clear from the beginning that you are barking up the wrong tree. Instead, "Van Helsing" is a likable piece of sensory overload, disposable eye candy that entertains while it plays itself out but isn't worth much once it's over. The film's sole ingenious line of dialogue comes at the end, so clever it is almost as if it fell into the screenplay by accident. "What do you say about your blood coursing through my body?" one of the vampire brides asks Anna. Anna's reply, after impaling her with a stake: "I say if you're gonna kill them, kill them. Don't just stand there and talk about it."
© 2004 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman