Underworld 3: Me No Lycan

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Ken George / Lakeshore Entertainment

Rhona Mitra in Underworld: Rise of the Lycans

Michael Sheen has been leading a double life. The Welsh actor has built his aboveground rep impersonating glad-handing Brit public figures: Tony Blair in The Deal and The Queen, David Frost in Frost/Nixon. Simultaneously, and subterraneanly, he's also been a wolf-man: Lucian, the half-breed in the Underworld thrillers, whose first two installments, from 2003 and 2006, grossed about $200 million worldwide. It's entirely possible that no single moviegoer has seen both the smooth Sheen and the hairy Sheen — the one in the Savile Row suits and the one who's spent enough time at the gym to acquire the torso worthy of a B-movie action figure.

Today he's outed. Frost/Nixon, which since early December has been tiptoeing through a few big-city theaters and yesterday garnered five Oscar nominations (including one for Best Picture), breaks out into wide release. And Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, the third in the vampire-werewolf saga, is playing on thousands of screens, hoping to end the weekend as the No. 1 box-office hit. The film's makers shouldn't hope to pick up any Academy Awards when next year's nominations are announced, since the enterprise is sluggish when it's not grinding toward the preposterous. (See Richard Corliss's wrap of this year's Oscar nominations.)

Returning to the Underworld franchise must stir conflicting emotions in Sheen. Six years ago, when he made the first film, he was a supporting player to his then girlfriend Kate Beckinsale's Selene, a vision in pancake face, blood red lipstick and black leather. Then she went off with the movie's director, Len Wiseman — ouch. Since then, Beckinsale has played Ava Gardner in The Aviator and, more or less, Judith Miller in Nothing But the Truth; Wiseman graduated to directing the very snappy fourth Die Hard movie; and Sheen became an upmarket character star. Now he's top-billed as Lucian the hybrid Lycan.

This is an "origins" movie, set long before the other two, in which war between the vampires and the werewolves had been raging for hundreds of years and Selene fell in love with the Lycan Michael (Scott Speedman), to the chagrin of her father Viktor (Bill Nighy). Lycans describes the birth and early career of Lucian, whom Viktor at first spares and nurtures, then chains and pursues when his daughter Sonya (Rhona Mitra) falls in love with the handsome lycanthrope. To Viktor, Lucian is suitable as a protector, not as a son-in-law.

Finally making explicit the class warfare between the sexy-snooty vampires and their vassals, Rise of the Lycans establishes Lucian as your basic pulp hero: lumpen nobleman, rabble-rouser and messiah. He's part Jesus, especially in the Gospel according to Mel Gibson (Lucian takes a lashing and keeps on gnashing), and part Spartacus, come to free the slaves — or are they pets — kept by the vampire overlords. In a dungeon or on a dark redoubt, Lucian offers his surly band of rebels "freedom and immortality!" (Wasn't that Tony Blair's campaign slogan when Labour ousted the Tories in '97?)

I'd provide more detail of plot and dialogue, but the visual palette was way too dark for me to take legible notes, and frankly, though I saw it at a midnight screening hours ago, the movie just wasn't that memorable. Suffice to say that there's much bounding about by furry, blurry CGI werewolves, quite a few decapitations and a poignant but nifty crisping of one of the vampires when exposed to sunlight. Being set in an earlier day (night), Lycans renounces the whizzing Matrix-like bullets of the first two movies for swords and a heavy-metal bow-and-arrow contraption that brings certain death to just about anyone but Lucian.

When a film is directed by a Frenchman (Patrick Tatopoulos) who's spent most of his career designing ugly creatures for movies like this and written by a stuntman (Danny McBride), you can expect it to be heavier on the action scenes than on character elucidation. The Brit cast attempts to camouflage the silliness by swanning it up, as if the Royal Shakespeare Company had gotten communally drunk and staged an impromptu production of Dracula Meets the Wolfman. Sheen tries bravely to keep a straight face, especially during his love scenes with Mitra, a TV grad (Party of Five, Gideon's Crossing, The Practice, Boston Legal, Nip/Tuck) who looks like the spawn of Steven Tyler and Katrina vanden Heuvel.

Who's left to watch? Nighy. If the Academy handed out an award for Best Overacting, he would win every year. A stalwart of British theater, particularly David Hare plays, he is most warmly remembered by movie audiences for playing the drug-addled rock star Billy Mack in Love Actually and the pirate Davy Jones in the last two Pirates of the Caribbean offerings. (He also appears, his emoting confined to the standard range, as one of Tom Cruise's cohorts in Valkyrie.) Here, outfitted with piercing powder blue eyes, Nighy ascends to scenery-devouring heights that obliterate the boundary between O.K. and awful. You may smile or cringe at Nighy's malefic majesty, but either way, you will savor it.

At the climax, someone tells Lucian that it's finally over. "No," he insists, "this is just beginning." Is that a promise or a threat? The weekend box office will determine the fate of the Underworld series — and whether Sheen continues as his wolfish man-god or goes on to make the planned sequel to The Queen, in which Tony Blair hooks up with Bill Clinton. Now, if he were to play Blair as the lapdog to George W. Bush, that would be a horror comedy to cherish.

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