Rhona Mitra in 'Underworld: Rise of the Lycans' (Sony/Screen Gems)

Ladies and gentlemen, may I present for your consideration the first candidate for Best Actor for next year's Academy Awards. Michael Sheen gives a blistering, fierce, and romantic performance as the enslaved hero of Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, which opens in wide release today. It ain't art, but it is hellaciously entertaining.

No one is more surprised than me. The first film in the series, Underworld (2003) brought a centuries-long blood feud between vampires and lycans (AKA werewolves) to a head in the modern day. The sequel, Underworld: Evolution (2006), explored what might happen if the two feuding clans could somehow be brought together through the presence of a hybrid wolf / bat / human. Both movies were directed by Len Wiseman, both movies were stylish to the point of being mannered, both featured CGI werewolves * transformations, and both were defined by the heroics of the murderous Kate Beckinsale, memorably packed into a skintight, black leather bodysuit atop monstrous black boots.

Without Beckinsale and Wiseman, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans charts its own path, aided immeasurably by the return of Sheen and Bill Nighy. The two had supporting roles in the first film -- Sheen as the rebel werewolf leader Lucian, and Nighy as imperious vampire lord Viktor -- and have been elevated to top billing, joined by Rhona Mitra as Sonja, Viktor's willful, defiant daughter and Lucian's love interest.

As a whole, the picture lives up to the juicy lead performances, neatly leaping over.the stumbling blocks so common in prequels (and third installments in a series), and delivering generous amounts of fast-paced action and bloody battles to satisfy both faithful fans and curious newcomers.



The story begins 20 years after the creation of the vampires and the werewolves in the 13th century. Viktor has assumed ruthless and absolute control, ruling over many human territories, and subjugating the werewolves to subservient roles as the daylight guardians and protectors of the vampires. Lucian is the first true Lycan, born human to a werewolf mother with the ability to transform into a werewolf at full moon and then return to human form. Before him, all humans who were "turned" into werewolves remained in animal form.

Against his better instincts, Viktor allows the baby to live and eventually grants him certain privileges and relative freedoms, yet still chained and enslaved to his masters, the vampires. Lucian develops a secret relationship with Sonja that blossoms into love, which would enrage Viktor if he knew about it. Lucian is torn; he loves Sonja with all his soul, even as he feels a deep kinship with his brethren, the werewolves.

Michael Sheen invests Lucian with a startling degree of pathos. This is no mere paycheck job for the stage-honed Sheen; he's not slumming or phoning in his performance. Just a few days ago, I finally caught up with Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon, in which Sheen plays the charming, playboy interviewer David Frost -- a character he nailed -- and it was remarkable to see him charging across the screen as the earthy, humble, electryifying Lucian the lycan, rousing his people to revolution.

As Viktor the vampire, Bill Nighy is a full-bore menace. He has the bearing and manner of boorish royalty, with the added benefit of being able to kill anyone that gets in his way. Viktor is very much a savage dictator, and it's great fun to watch him standing toe to toe with Sheen, equally ready and able to deliver angry, fulsome speeches and engage in vicious fights.

Rhona Mitra has the thankless task of "replacing" Kate Beckinsale. True, she's playing a completely different character, but it's hard to believe she wasn't cast, at least in part, because of her superficial resemblance to Beckinsale. Still, as she demonstrated in Neil Marshall's Doomsday, Mitra has an innate strength that translates very well in her action sequences, and her dramatic and romantic scenes are infused with a different vibe than what Beckinsale emanated. Mitra as Sonja is much more openly defiant of Viktor; at the same time, she's more pliant with her beloved Lucian. It's a good mix, and Mitra pulls it off.

I don't mean to damn director Patrick Tatopoulos with faint praise for waiting so long to mention his name, but he does just fine for his first time in the feature director's chair. Tatopoulos, a veteran effects designer and creature creator, knows how to stage scenes so as to maximize the effectiveness of the creatures, often masking them with long shadows, drenching rainstorms, and quick, glancing edits.

The masking and staging helps, but only to a limited degree. With all due respect to the time and effort involved, those CGI werewolves transformations (and other effects) still take me out of the movie. They bothered me in Underworld, they bugged me in Underworld: Evolution, and they irritated me in Underworld: Rise of the Lycans. More than once, I was distracted by a visual effect that was glaringly artificial. Either they need to spend more money, or improve the software, or ... something.

Leaving that caveat aside, I enjoyed the ride, which falters only occasionally (notably when it starts to feel like a weird mating of Spartacus and Braveheart). And I really liked Nighy and Mitra, and loved, loved, loved Michael Sheen. That guy deserves an Oscar.

* UPDATE: Edited for clarity. Thanks to commenter SlimPickins for pointing out that only the transformations in the first film were CGI.