The epitome of everything that's wrong with $150 million B-movies, "Van Helsing" is an inane, soulless, 19th century vampire-hunting action flick of computer-F/X overkill and ham-fisted actors chewing on stale catch-phrase dialogue (when dialogue is even allowed) as if it's a mouthful of bubblegum with the flavor long gone.
Despite being inspired (if you can even call it that) by a character in "Dracula" and lifting a slew of monsters from other classic horror tales too, the picture has little story to speak of -- just a few minutes about Bram Stoker's bloodsucking Count using the electrifying re-animation technique of Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein to zap life into thousands of his gestating offspring that hang in slimy pods all over his castle lair.
So since writer-director Stephen Sommers (who clearly blew all his talent on "The Mummy" -- as anyone who's seen "The Mummy Returns" can attest) couldn't be bothered with anything more than Cliffs-Notes plot and character development, I'm going to respond in kind -- not bothering with a structured review and instead simply listing examples of the twaddle and tripe that pass for script and storytelling in this laughable example of Hollywood's numbing, style-without-substance approach to summer movies.
o Despite taking place in 19th century Transylvania (and before dynamite, gasoline, etc.), Sommers starts blowing up sets in inexplicably massive fireballs within the first four minutes. It's not much longer before he also cooks up an excuse to recycle his facial re-generation and unhinged-jaw effects from "The Mummy."
o The titular hero (played by Hugh Jackman as a teeth-gritting cardboard cutout version of an Indiana Jones ancestor) is introduced in a fight scene with a computer-generated Mr. Hyde (as in "Dr. Jekyll and...") that is considerably less convincing than one from last year's otherwise lousy "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" -- coincidentally the last big-budget bomb to mix legendary characters with such clumsy impudence.
o As in her last laughable vampire movie (2003's "Underworld"), the unavoidably cute Kate Beckinsale has zero credibility as tough-girl heroine Anna, a sexy Transylvanian with uber-tossable tresses and inexplicable martial arts skills. She wears a corset with rock-star-styled riding pants and go-go boots, and looks ridiculous slinging a sword and a one-shot, silver-bullet pistol that she holsters in case of werewolves.
o Dracula (Richard Roxburgh, "Moulin Rouge") is scenery-gnawing silly to a degree comparable to an evil circus clown, especially as he paces the walls and ceilings of his cavernous castle halls, having emotional outbursts, apropos to nothing, about not being able to feel any emotions.
o Helsing is supplied with an array of gadgetry (nitroglycerine, semi-automatic machine-gun crossbow, zip-line-firing gun for pulley-riding between castle towers and mountain tops) absurd enough to make George Clooney's version of Batman roll his eyes in disbelief -- all of which are provided by a comic-relief Franciscan friar who is a blatant rip-off of James Bond's "Q." (There's a fine line between homage and rip-off, and on several occasions "Van Helsing" leaves that line miles behind.)
o Most of the action scenes take place in very high locations with lots of dangling ropes and chains, leading to several characters swinging around like Tarzan -- including Frankenstein's monster (whose glass brain cover and screwed-together skull are actually one of the movie's coolest effects).
o All of the chase scenes (horse-and-carriage, on foot, ad nauseam) take place near cliffs, chasms and collapsed bridges, leading to the gross over-use of really silly car-jump-like CGI "stunts."
o The soundtrack is a sensory-assault of ominous chorus chants that never lets up...
o ...except on the very few occasions when the action stops dead in its tracks for some of the most cumbersome, long-winded expository dialogue I've witnessed in my nine years as a film critic.
o And, by the way, here's what passes for witty repartee: "So you're the famous Van Helsing," says a towering, salivating Mr. Hyde. "And you're a bloody psychopath," rejoinders the hero.
Jackman and Beckinsale should get Oscars for being able to say their lines without becoming flushed with embarrassment. But then again, no movie star who could read a script like "Van Helsing" and still sign on deserves any kind of accolades.
Dependent on a whole lot of balderdash monster mythology made up just for this movie, and saddled with the title character's incomplete backstory (he has no memory of his centuries-old past, nor is there an explanation of how he's lived that long), if "Van Helsing" is Sommers' idea of big-budget campiness, he has a feckless sense of humor.
But I get the impression he thinks he's making a quality product here -- with a few barely noticeable nods to its 1930s motion-picture roots like the occasional miniature in place of overblown CGI effects -- despite the fact that anyone with half a brain could figure out easier ways to defeat Dracula than the legendary Helsing can muster.
Why not simply destroy some of Frankenstein's equipment, thus preventing the re-animation experiments from taking place? Well then, what would Sommers do with his colossal, entirely computer-generated monster-a-monster showdown that requires conveniently simultaneous thunderstorms (to facilitate re-animation) and a full moon (to transform werewolves), plus a clock striking midnight (and something about the 12th chime, which then goes utterly ignored) and an injection of anti-werewolf serum?
With all that nonsense going on, the only entertainment value "Van Helsing" offers comes from the unintentionally funny fact that the film's every scene is exponentially more ludicrous, effects-driven and lame-brained than the one before it.
Run time: 131 mins
In Theaters: Friday 7th May 2004
Box Office Worldwide: $300.3M
Production compaines: Universal Pictures, Sommers Company, The, Stillking Films, Carpathian Pictures
IMDB: 5.9 / 10
Director: Stephen Sommers
Starring: Hugh Jackman as Van Helsing, Kate Beckinsale as Anna Valerious, Richard Roxburgh as Vladislaus Dracula, Josie Maran as Marishka, David Wenham as Carl, Shuler Hensley as Frankenstein's Monster, Elena Anaya as Aleera, Will Kemp as Velkan, Kevin J. O'Connor as Igor, Alun Armstrong as Cardinal Jinette, Silvia Colloca as Verona, Tom Fisher as Top Hat, Samuel West as Dr. Victor Frankenstein, Robbie Coltrane as Mr. Hyde (voice), Stephen Fisher as Dr. Jekyll
Also starring: Schuler Hensley