Frankenstein, the Wolf Man and Dracula in the same movie? Awesome. Or so 'Van Helsing' might be if it had a distinct identity.Loud, busy and not a little frenetic, "Van Helsing" is an example of nepotism run amok, a case study of the difficulties you can get into when you decide to hire the family.
For Universal Pictures, the family consists of Frankenstein, the Wolf Man and Count Dracula, horror movie stalwarts whose individual efforts gave the studio its identity during the 1930s and '40s. Professor Van Helsing, fans of "Dracula" will remember, was the venerable authority on vampires who masterminded the counterattack on the Count.
And if nothing else, putting the trio into a new movie and bringing Dracula's old enemy — now a hip soldier of fortune played by Hugh Jackman — along for the ride would allow for a nifty DVD release of the classics with the money tag line, "Unleash the Original Films That Inspired 'Van Helsing.' "
Plus, entrusting writer-director Stephen Sommers with the family jewels seemed like a good guarantee of success. His earlier efforts, especially directing "The Mummy Returns" and providing the inspiration for "The Scorpion King," put the fun back into Saturday afternoon popcorn movies.
But while Sommers' gift for pulp material and boundless on-screen energy do have an impact, "Van Helsing," like the work of the good Dr. Frankenstein, is an experiment gone awry. Unable to be consistently amusing, overburdened by all its special effects, it's neither as emotionally involving as its ancient progenitors nor as much fun as the more recent films that starred Brendan Fraser and the Rock.
By replacing those guys with Jackman, an excellent actor with a classically heroic persona, "Van Helsing" signals that, occasional stabs at humor notwithstanding, it's less interested in being funny than in positioning itself as an action-adventure extravaganza.
That also means that "Van Helsing" is increasingly dependent on computer-generated effects, which, paradoxically, seem to be less convincing the more technically proficient they become. Yes, vampire fangs slickly appear at the drop of a jaw, and the shape-shifting transformation from human to Wolf Man looks seamless, but these effects are so omnipresent and so clearly machine-made that they overburden the result, increasing its unbelievability quotient. The time and energy that go into these CGI-driven set pieces also give the film an unfortunate episodic feeling. Even when individual sequences work — and some of them do — they can't stop "Van Helsing" from becoming a cobbled-together venture without an emotional through line. Kind of like a basketball team of all-stars — no names, please — that has difficulty jelling into one smooth and efficient unit.
The first of the film's visual effects is one of its most engaging, as a black-and-white version of the globe that is Universal's logo turns into the head of a fiery torch. The year is 1887, the place is Transylvania, and irate peasants by the dozens are once again on the march.
They're not marching on Castle Dracula, however, but on the residence of Dr. Victor Frankenstein, who's been invited here by the Count because he wants to use the doctor's methods for his own nefarious ends. As played by Australian actor Richard Roxburgh, this smirking and snit-prone Count will not make anyone forget Bela Lugosi.
It's Van Helsing we meet next, as he fights a huge, computer-generated Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in Paris. A fearless type who specializes in killing the unkillable, Van Helsing also has a dramatic sense of himself. Asked if he's a murderer or a holy man, he smoothly replies, "a little bit of both."
Actually, Van Helsing is presented as a kind of 19th century James Bond, employed by a secret Vatican society to rid the world of evil. A cheeky comic-relief friar named Carl (David Wenham) supplies him with the latest gizmos, including a kind of turbo-powered crossbow that shoots arrows faster than Robin Hood dreamed possible.
Van Helsing's next assignment is Transylvania, where the Valerious family, slow learners every one, has been trying to kill Dracula for nine generations. Taking Carl with him for laughs and ammunition, Van Helsing promises to speed things up and, like Wolverine in "X-Men" (also played by Jackman), find out a thing or two about his own background in the process.
Making things more interesting for our hero is that the last surviving member of that family is hot number Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale), who looks like a refugee from the adult film industry in whip-me boots and the tightest of corsets. Who knew the Transylvanians were so fashion conscious?
Like guests at a charity telethon, a lot of celebrated monsters make guest appearances in "Van Helsing." The brides of Dracula, all gauze and teeth, swoop in and out like the cast of "Winged Migration." Frankenstein's monster, nicely played by Shuler Hensley, turns out to be the most sensitive and sophisticated person in the picture.
Effects-laden though it is, "Van Helsing" has little that lasts in the mind for more than five seconds. In that context, it's interesting to note that the cases of the newly reissued DVDs each feature a line of dialogue from the originals so evocative it has stayed fresh in the public mind for decades.
That's not going to be the case with "Van Helsing."
MPAA rating: PG-13, for nonstop creature action violence and frightening images, and for sensuality
Times guidelines: All but continuous violence, plus repulsive moments
Hugh Jackman...Van Helsing
Kate Beckinsale...Anna Valerious
Richard Roxburgh...Count Dracula
Shuler Hensley...Frankenstein's Monster
A Sommers Co. production, released by Universal Pictures. Director Stephen Sommers. Producers Sommers, Bob Ducsay. Executive producer Sam Mercer. Screenplay Sommers. Cinematographer Allen Daviau. Editors Ducsay, Kelly Matsumoto. Costumes Gabriella Pescucci, Carlo Poggioli. Music Alan Silvestri. Production design Allan Cameron. Art directors Steve Arnold, Keith P. Cunningham, Tony Reading, Giles Masters. Set decorators Cindy Carr, Anna Pinnock. Running time: 2 hours, 11 minutes.
Hugh Jackman plays a monster hunter fighting Frankenstein, the Wolf man and Dracula.
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