Before the Blood Wars Part 3: Lycans Ruled the Underworld

Not to get too far into the weeds with this stuff (too late, I know), but there’s a distinction between Underworld’s two major conflicts. The “Vampire-Werewolf War” (glimpsed at the start of Underworld: Evolution) signifies vampire Marcus’ crusade against his brother William’s lycanthropic plague. Eager to stop the werewolf’s decimation of the European countryside, Marcus converted warlord Viktor into a tool against them. Viktor then created the Death Dealers as foot soldiers to combat William’s rampaging pack. These adversaries are not humans who change from man to wolf, but victims whose humanity was stolen.

Related Stories: Before the Blood Wars Part 1Before the Blood Wars Part 2

Rise of the Lycans bears that title to establish the start of a different war. The war that’s still in media res as 2003’s Underworld opens. The “Vampire-Werewolf War” closed with the capture and imprisonment of William and the enslavement of his species. The “Vampire-Lycan War” begins with the birth of a child. Rise of the Lycans opens just a few years after the first war, focusing on the birth of Lucian. He’s the first werewolf to toggle between animal and man, and this ability intrigues Viktor. He sees it as an asset for all vampires as werewolves are animals incapable of obeying commands. Lucian, however, can.

If my math is correct, Rise of the Lycans spans a few centuries. We meet Lucian as a baby and see him grow rather quickly into an adult (where Michael Sheen reprises his role from the original). The movie covers a lot of ground over its brisk 92-minute run time, but Patrick Tatopoulos’ film moves a little too fast, feeling almost perfunctory in its execution. Lucian is okay with his slave status at first, and Viktor trades usefulness for luxury while keeping him “leashed.” Specially designed shackles prohibit him from becoming a wolf, and he continues to be of great use to Viktor, forging weapons and creating soldiers.

The challenge of any prequel is to justify its story. Underworld gave us the Cliff’s Notes of this, and while Rise of the Lycans is a fun medieval monster mash, it offers no real surprises. It’s neat to see this Gothic, blue world in another time period, and the production design gives the castle interiors more style and culture than expected. Viktor rules the countryside with an iron fist. He uses werewolf muscle to keep his vampire clan safe during daylight hours. Viktor has no love for humanity either, despite offering nearby villages “protection” in exchange for goods and services. Problems arise when a pack of feral werewolves begin ransacking villages, making humanity question their agreement. Death Dealers ride out to squash these attacks, led by Viktor’s daughter, Sonja (Rhona Mitra).

It’s because of Sonja that Lucian tolerates his shackled existence. Their affair is secret, with both understanding the forbidden risk of it. She has to escort a caravan to safety, and Lucian senses the wolves are springing a trap for the Death Dealers. Viktor refuses to listen to reason, confident his daughter can handle it. Lucian goes against his wishes and removes his shackles in order to rescue Sonja from the werewolves, and Viktor sees this as betrayal.

Some refer to Underworld as Romeo and Juliet with Vampires. It has those aspirations, but the Selene/Michael romance was never that involving. It’s more important that the Lucian/Sonja dynamic works, and it does. Sheen and Mitra’s coupling is melodramatic in the best sense. Their romance is defined in broad strokes, but the actors understand how to sell it anyway. I’ve never understood the compulsion to knock this series for taking itself seriously. I like seeing good actors navigate low(er) budgeted fantasy with the same respect given to, say, Lord of the Rings. Rhona Mitra’s Sonja shares archetypal DNA with franchise figurehead, Selene, but she’s not as important. It’s her untimely fate that matters, not her actions.

Rise of the Lycans is Michael Sheen’s movie, and watching this chameleon actor give his all is a joy. The original Underworld wrote Lucian with a fair amount of complexity. He began as a generic villain who earned more layers until his appropriately poetic ending. Rise of the Lycans is fun because Sheen is the unlikeliest action hero. He makes this movie the inverse of a series built around a sexy heroine in a slinky leather catsuit. Here it’s Sheen who goes full-on beefcake while offering a fine performance to support his bulky physique.

I’ve already covered the joy that Bill Nighy’s Viktor brings, so of course I love an entire movie built around him. Nighy continues to give Viktor his snarling all, and the script embraces his villainy full-tilt. And it needs to. Viktor’s cruelty is the catalyst for the war, so everything he does is appropriately evil and over-the-top. Rise of the Lycans dares us to hate Viktor, but Nighy knows that we can’t.

It’s also the only film in the series to be overtly pro-lycan, the first and only one (to date) that focuses on the other side. I’ve always wanted to see Selene face off against the lycan equivalent of a Death Dealer, but that’s an opportunity the movies have yet to seize. At least Rise of the Lycans gives the monsters their due. The werewolf fanatic in me loves it for that reason alone. By the time we get around to an army of lycans laying siege to the vampire castle, it’s pure monster movie bliss.

Incredibly, this story is the subject of two books by the same author. A Rise of the Lycans novelization was commissioned for release in 2009. It was written by Greg Cox, who covered this ground previously in a 2004 book titled Underworld: Blood Enemy. Cox’s 2004 take on the Lucian/Sonja story flows differently, despite following the same basic events. Blood Enemy has a larger scope and juggles more characters, feeling more in step with what Len Wiseman and co. did with Underworld. We delve deep into the vampire’s traditions and get a better sense of their surrounding world. Kraven is also present, with Cox planting the seeds for his future betrayal. It goes without saying this one ends with a victory for the lycans. Lucian overthrows Viktor’s castle, making it a home for himself and his soldiers. At least until Kraven comes along to “save the day.” We know how that turns out, but it’s too bad the producers couldn’t have lured Shane Brolly back to play Kraven. It’s not a total loss because Tanis from Evolution is a suitable replacement. He’s Underworld‘s version of Littlefinger, constantly scheming for his own benefit.

My problem with Rise of the Lycans is that it feels slighter than its predecessors. Yes, we get Lucian and Viktor. And sure, Sonja is an appealing heroine in her limited role. It’s even great seeing Raze again (and actor Kevin Grevioux wrote his own version of this story in comic form). Everything happens quickly, as if the movie is in a rush to reach the end. This undercuts the drama and produces less impact. Rise of the Lycans is fun. Moments are sad. And it’s stacked with better actors than material like this gets. You have to love Spartacus with werewolves, and I do. I just can’t help feeling like it’s also a missed opportunity.

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Matt Serafini

Author (Under the Blade, Feral), slasher movie enthusiast, N7 Operative. Plays games, watches movies, reads books. Occasionally writes about them.

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