It's Alive. Just ...
, 18 May 2004
Not having seen the Universal films referenced within except for in glimpses from other film and homage I came to Van Helsing without the main images from those films in my head ready to be destroyed. I still came away with a vague sense of disappointment, because for all the exciting set pieces, the deftly realised monsters and the weaving cinematography, the central characterisation and our way into this world is extraordinarily two dimensional and so much like the recent Underworld in moments when we are supposed to care so that the upcoming peril has greater meaning. By the end you want to care more for the overall storyline but you haven't been given enough tools or understanding for that to happen.
Perhaps we've been spoilt. The Joss Whedonverse has created an expectation that even the most extraordinary supernatural narrative can also include a medition on some great theme and moments of heartbreak. This is also true of the film versions of The Lord of the Rings (which this film stylistically mirrors). But both of those allow the heroes time to breath -- whether its Buffy in a graveyeard or Frodo on the road to Mordor, there are moments in which they literally sit down and talk about the impending doom. It also gives the viewer / audience a breather to think about that doom themselves. In Van Helsing that hardly happens, and when it does the dialogue is often of such plodding banality, first draft place holders rendered in celluloid, that its entirely up to the charisma of the actors to carry it off.
And so the dicotomy because for much of the time it is entertaining for that very reason. Hugh Jackman carries over the charisma of Wolverine (and characterisation -- this too is man without a past) and exhibits some of the vulnerabilty of an early Eighties Harrison Ford (although in places I kept picturing him in a Clint Eastwood bio-pic some day). That Kate Beckinsale can be the all action hero is just a matter of proving again her flexibility -- I thought her a bit wooden and uncomfortable in Underworld but here, even in that velvet corset, flashes of her romantic comedy persona come and go. David (Faramir) Wenham is also good fun in the typical sidekick exposition role working out what to do next when the increasingly convoluted (yet strangely repetative plot) stalls. If there is a weak link its Richard Roxburgh -- not because he doesn't try his hardest but because this version of Dracula lacks a depth and he simply isn't given enough to do. In the moments when he could be at his most terrifying he's turned into a giant special effect.
Which is rather the overall problem with Stephen Sommers film. At key moments characters walk through an environment being stalked by some invisible evil -- the imagination runs wild trying to picture what kind of menace might befall the 'victim' and then it appears and time and again you're left with the impression of 'oh its a special effect' or sometimes 'oh its a great special effect' -- pulled out of the action the tension disipating as the meanie jumps out of a window. Also a couple of the action sequences go on too long without ratcheting upwards -- and in one case a battle ends then begins again repeating everything much as it happened before in a slightly different order. But for all this, there are still enough entertaining moments to be worthwhile. Too many ideas then but not enough time given for talking about them.
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