Movie Review: Van Helsing
By Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune Movie Critic
"Van Helsing," Stephen Sommers' high-tech revision of three Universal horror classics - "Dracula," "Frankenstein" and "The Wolf Man" - is a movie that's underwritten, overdirected, overproduced and almost constantly over the top. But it's also, at its best, a big tongue-in-cheek extravaganza.
Suppose you tried to rethink the old "Dracula" movies for the era of digitized, high-concept, $100 million modern movies, and you didn't want to make Dracula the hero, as Francis Coppola did (sort of) in his 1992 version. You might decide, as Sommers has here, to make a hero of Bram Stoker's vampire hunter, the hoary old academic Abraham Van Helsing. But how would you make him a modern, high-tech hero? Could you turn him into James Bond or Indiana Jones?
You would probably want to stop before you went any further. But Sommers and company haven't. They've given us Hugh Jackman as moodily handsome, brilliant, two-fisted Gabriel Van Helsing, a black-clad hero with a mysterious past who can adventure like Indiana, swagger like Bond, kick-fight like Bruce Lee and swashbuckle like Errol Flynn.
They've surrounded him with a gallery of fearsome monsters, led by the aristocratic Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) and including a schizophrenic, tormented Wolf Man (Will Kemp) and a horrific-looking Frankenstein's Monster (Shuler Hensley). Also on board are evil assistant Igor (Kevin J. O'Connor) and three flying bat-babes (Elena Anaya, Silvia Colloca, Josie Maran) who snatch people from the ground and swoop off like hawks.
Of course, there's a heroine: gypsy battler Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale), brave sister of the Wolf Man, Velkan Valerious. And there's a comical sidekick for Van Helsing: nerdy scientist Carl (David Wenham), who's modeled vaguely on gadget-master Q of the Bond series.
Sound absurd? In a way, it is. "Van Helsing" is a "Dracula" for the DVD age - an ear-splitting, eye-popping spectacle that slips into high gear in the first few seconds and never lets up. Almost every scene is an immense set piece, loaded with lavish production design, packed with CGI special effects. The characters are forever bashing each other, crashing through walls and windows and setting off fiery explosions. And the camera (in the hands of "E.T." cinematographer Allen Daviau) keeps racing around, as it zooms in and out in vertigo-inducing aerial shots that show off the scenery even as it's exploding all around the characters.
It's an outlandish, overscaled movie from a script that's light on characterization, depth and humor. Yet I enjoyed it, because Sommers (writer-director of "The Mummy") has such a lavish visual imagination and because he has such affection for those old movies - as he demonstrates in the first scene, an elaborate black-and-white pastiche of James Whale's "Frankenstein" movies.
Sommers did the same kind of thing in his "Mummy" movies, but he has even more resources here. The sheer exaggeration in nearly every scene, driven along by Alan Silvestri's pop-Verdi score, makes it all entertaining. After the "Frankenstein" opening (in many ways the movie's highlight), it proceeds to a wild rooftop battle over Paris between Van Helsing and a Hulkish Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde (Robbie Coltrane), and then it's off to Transylvania. There, Sommers keeps weaving his three monster legends together - Dracula, it seems, needs the Frankenstein monster as a source of evil life force, and The Wolf Man is a non-innocent bystander - and driving them all toward the film's climax.
Writer-director Sommers could use someone to touch up his dialogue. But he's often a terrific imagist, and he shoots the works here. The actors can't dig very deep - they're too busy dodging explosions or climbing the walls - but they do give their roles welcome lightness and self-mockery. Jackman is magnetically somber, Beckinsale vivacious, Roxburgh (of "Moulin Rouge") amusingly hammy, and Hensley almost poignant.
But the flaws aren't ruinous. "Van Helsing," like Sommers' "Mummies," is an obvious would-be franchise movie that's easy to mock. But it's also easy to enjoy, and even if you can imagine the mix of "Dracula," "Goldfinger," "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" that the movie gives us, you'll have a few surprises in store.
Directed and written by Stephen Sommers; photographed by Allen Daviau; edited by Bob Ducsay, Kelly Matsumoto; production designed by Allan Cameron; music by Alan Silvestri; produced by Sommers, Ducsay. A Universal release; opens Friday, May 7. Running time: 2:12. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for non-stop creature action violence and frightening images, and for sensuality).
Gabriel Van Helsing - Hugh Jackman
Anna Valerious - Kate Beckinsale
Carl - David Wenham
Count Vladislaus Dracula - Richard Roxburgh
Frankenstein's Monster - Shuler Hensley
Aleera - Elena Anaya
Velkan Valerious - Will Kemp
Igor - Kevin J. O'Connor
Mr. Hyde - Robbie Coltrane