Van Helsing Review
The 2004 summer blockbuster season kicks off this weekend with the release of Van Helsing, Stephen Sommers' megabudget homage to the Universal monster movies of the thirties and forties. He must really love those old monster movies - it's his third such homage in a row following the two Mummy films. He isn't interested in remaking them or recapturing their style, instead he takes the characters, legends and imagery and creates his own all-action, special-effects-loaded adventures, which are like the James Bond or Indiana Jones films viewed on fast forward.
The first scene is the best, a nice tip of the hat to James Whale's Frankenstein, shot in black and white. As Dr Frankenstein brings his creation to life and hordes of torch-wielding villagers batter down his castle door, Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) shows up to steal the baron's invention for nefarious purposes of his own. Cut to full colour and to Paris where Dr Jekyll's monstrous alter ego, Mr Hyde (a CGI creation voiced by Robbie Coltrane) is on the rampage and is about to meets its match in Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman). Hang on a minute! Gabriel Van Helsing? Shouldn't that be Abraham? Never mind, the character here bears no resemblance to the Dutch professor created by Bram Stoker and portrayed on film most famously by Peter Cushing. This Van Helsing is more like the male Lara Croft. You won't find him sneaking into crypts at night and staking sleeping vampires, not when he could shoot them with a stake-loaded crossbow while swinging from a castle roof.
As Sommers has re-written him, Van Helsing is a secret agent working for a shadowy department within the Vatican, which leads to the film's worst sequence, an ill-advised James Bond pastiche in which our hero is briefed about his enemy by a stern cardinal and then led into a secret chamber where monks are designing and testing new weapons and gadgets. Why not go all the way and have him flirt with a nun on his way in? This kind of cuteness may sound amusing in script meetings but usually results in films like The League Of Extraordinary Gentleman. Fortunately there isn't too much of it. Van Helsing is dispatched to Transylvania, his mission to prevent Count Dracula killing Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale). She's the last of a long line of royalty which produced the evil count and her entire family will be damned if they die out before the vampire is destroyed.
From this point on, it's wall to wall action. I counted at least six lengthy action sequences in Van Helsing, plus countless minor skirmishes, all of which involve heavy CGI effects work. Surely this film must set some sort of record for the amount of special effects shots it contains. They're mostly state of the art and obviously cost a fortune but Sommers tries to top himself too many times and the movie reaches the point of overkill long before its 130 minutes are up. Another problem with the CGI is that, despite all the money and effort put into them, none of the monsters are very effective. They're just too cartoon-like to be fearsome. The werewolves call to mind the big bad wolf from Little Red Riding Hood, while that Robbie Coltrane-voiced Mr Hyde could be Shrek's alcoholic brother. And what was Dr Frankenstein thinking when he built disco lights into his monster's cranium?
I could be reviewing any of Stephen Sommers' last three films here: Van Helsing and the Mummy movies belong to the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink school of filmmaking which has sapped some of the fun out of modern blockbusters. In his defence, Sommers has more wit and a lighter touch than other kitchen-sink directors like Michael Bay and McG. Even at their most manic, his films don't bludgeon you with their editing. There is pleasure to be taken from them. Van Helsing can be enjoyed for its technical merits, such as Allen Daviau's cinematography, Allan Cameron's production design and Alan Silvestri's score, for individual set-pieces that work well, like the opening, the masquerade ball and the stagecoach chase, and for the often funny dialogue, although the one-liners are something else Sommers overdoes. At times it feels like you're watching the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version. Sommers' films pass muster as Saturday night popcorn flicks, but they're scarcely more substantial or memorable than Scooby-Doo or 2 Fast 2 Furious. He isn't a mercenary, I don't believe he makes his movies just for the money, I think the problem is he's insecure and too eager to please. He writes and directs like he's afraid if he slows down for two minutes, the audience will get bored and leave.
The performances are a mixed bag. Despite having virtually no character to play, Hugh Jackman shines in the lead. After the X-Men films and Swordfish, he's used to commanding the screen in the midst of expensive mayhem and he again proves himself a real star. Kate Beckinsale, making her second vampire epic in a row after Underworld, comes out of it less well, sporting a very dubious accent and never making much of an impression, while Richard Roxburgh's Dracula is a little too camp and appears inspired by Gary Oldman's count in the 1992 remake. Better are David Wenham as Van Helsing's wisecracking sidekick (no Sommers film is complete without one) and Shuler Hensley as Frankenstein's monster, the only character in the film who inspires any feeling.