No Spark Of Life

`Van Helsing' is a jumble of monsters and mission. Not even Hugh Jackman can save it.


May 07, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC


* 1/2

Van Helsing is so full of live creatures, dead creatures, undead creatures and creatures in various states of transformation toward becoming other creatures, it's part mass grave, part crass menagerie.

Hugh Jackman plays the title character, a forever-young creature-hunter and battler against evil. He once fought with the Jews against the Romans at Masada and now serves at the pleasure of a secret society in the Vatican. Despite the prime Catholic location, this society apparently welcomes many faiths; there are Eastern clerics of all types in the background, and some audibly invoke Allah. You've got to hand it to writer-director Stephen Sommers and Universal Pictures - with references to Masada and Allah as well as the sight of a red-robed cardinal calling the shots, they won't alienate a single market.

Van Helsing mysteriously lost most of his memory and must follow his calling if he's ever to regain it beyond fleeting nightmares. That and his modified Indiana Jones hat are his most striking attributes. His main superpower appears to be luck.

After an initial set-to with Mr. Hyde in Paris (a Mr. Hyde with the simian look of the beast from Poe's The Murders in the Rue Morgue), his antagonist becomes Dracula (Richard Roxburgh). This vampire is more or less the traditional bloodsucker, except the usual stakes and crucifixes can't stop him. (At least they bring down his wives - in this movie the male is the deadlier of the species.)

Roxburgh's earringed, lank-haired nosferatu, as overdrawn as Count Chocula, tries to breed undead babies with his harem. But to do so he must beast-nap the Frankenstein Monster and figure out Dr. Frankenstein's "key to life."

Dracula comes closer to finding that key than Sommers does - the movie, a jokey jamboree in the manner of Sommers' smash-hit Mummy pictures, has no life, just spurious activity, like frogs' legs twitching in a high-school science lab.

Sommers wisely enlisted lithe, witty Kate Beckinsale to play Anna, the last survivor of a family whose members gain eternal salvation only if she stops Dracula. But he wastes her pitilessly. She stomps around in an adjusted-for-young-audiences gypsy-dominatrix outfit, fighting three vampire brides whose near-nude spectral forms and busty nightgowns would look at home in the Frederick's of Carpathia catalog.

Anna spouts action-film banalities in the movie's Bela Lugosi-for-Dummies dialect and accents. All this gives Beckinsale little opportunity to strut her stuff either as a serious actress or a play-actress; one of the best screen kissers in the business, she's allowed just one clinch with Jackman. (I'm a big believer in sisterly love, but I found it a bit creepy when the movie attached more passion to Anna's reuniting with her brother than to her love for Van Helsing.)

And Jackman cuts a stronger figure as Wolverine in the X-Men movies - heck, he was more dashing as the time-hopping aristocrat in Kate & Leopold. Here he's a pallid romantic, less Byron than Batman: The mechanical surprises he pulls out from his long coat are his greatest attraction.

He's supposed to get a James Bond-Q thing going with his tag-along assistant and gadget-master, Carl, who supplies Van Helsing with such devices as a souped-up crossbow that shoots dozens of stakelike silver arrows. (Moviemaker Sommers steals from everywhere.) But the actor playing Carl, David Wenham, is woefully immodest when he underlines some desperate running gags. This seemingly austere denizen of the Vatican propositions a Transylvanian gal, then explains, "I'm not a monk, I'm a friar."

That line should send young audiences to the online dictionary, where they'll find that a friar is a religionist who lives on alms. The whole movie is a beggar's banquet pitched on the brink of wholesale parody. But it never quite takes the plunge. Indeed, for all its frenzied spectacle, it never goes anywhere. (Mel Brooks' lowdown, brilliant Young Frankenstein wasn't simply better at comedy - it was better at suspense.)

A carriage carrying Van Helsing, Carl, Anna and Frankenstein's Monster appears to fall into a chasm, then suddenly goes careening along the edge of a cliff. When Sommers doesn't fragment the action to the point of obscurity, he makes it repetitive to the point of dullness, penciling in as many body slams and head-bangings as a full card for WrestleMania.

Frankenstein's Monster's slablike makeup has none of the nuts-and-bolts poetry of the Boris Karloff version. No matter how expensive the digital creations of Mr. Hyde and Dracula's dozens of dragonlike undead babies, they provide neither the illusion of spontaneity nor the creative zing of old-fashioned makeup and prosthetics and clay figures.

The biggest crime of Van Helsing is that it resurrects classic monsters and fails to make them scary. With a full 132 minutes of feeble jokes and gimcrack phantasmagoria, it's not spine-tingling - it's butt-numbing.

Van Helsing

Starring Hugh Jackman and Kate Beckinsale

Directed by Stephen Sommers

Rated PG-13

Released by Universal Pictures

Time 132 minutes

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