- Rated PG-13
- Buy the DVD
All photos © Universal
Reviewed by David Medsker
few years ago, it was generally agreed that director Michael Bay ("Armageddon", "Bad Boys") was the devil, that his movies were flashy but soulless, pretty but vacant. The big concern among movie lovers, of course, was that the devil would mate and reproduce, spawning a legion of likeminded directors that would lower the standards of moviemaking forevermore. Indeed, that would certainly explain guys like Simon West ("The General's Daughter"), Dominic Sena ("Gone in Sixty Seconds") and Jan DeBont ("The Haunting") getting regular work.
The devil’s favored son, however, has to be Stephen Sommers. His “Mummy” movies were high tech masturbation of the highest order, all CGI and no ABC’s. Storytelling, character development and dialogue were for suckers. And the public clearly agreed; both movies were huge hits. It was that success that gave Sommers the clout to make “Van Helsing,” the most laughably bad action/adventure movie since “Batman and Robin.” A six-year-old with Pixie sticks could have done better than this.
Taking the last three pieces of intellectual property left in Universal’s vaults, Sommers spins a yarn about a bounty hunter named Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) who works for the Vatican, a sort of period piece James Bond with high tech gadgetry centuries ahead of its time. His latest assignment is to protect Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale, sporting a waist line from a Disney cartoon) and her brother, who are the last two members of a bloodline that’s of particular interest to Count Vladislaus Dracula (Richard Roxburgh, the effeminate Duke from “Moulin Rouge”). But Dracula has help; he has three beautiful, flying demon wives, plus a reluctant Wolf Man on his payroll. The key to Dracula’s plan of ruling the world (wring hands evilly here), however, is Frankenstein’s monster (Shuler Hensley), though the logic behind this is so flimsy it’s not worth even mentioning.
The one thing Sommers has going for him here, besides a lot more money to play with, is a better cast. Jackman and Beckinsale easily trump “Mummy” vets Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz. However, even good actors can succumb to bad direction, with Beckinsale’s Transylvanian accent slipping so much you’d think her dialect coach was Kevin Costner. Roxburgh plays Dracula like Sommers told him, “I have one word for you: Pacino.” Jackman is given surprisingly little room to make Van Helsing heroic or even likable, but there’s a reason for that: Van Helsing is not the apple of Sommers’ eye. The monsters are.
For someone who got their start as a screenwriter, Sommers’ scripts are simply awful. The dialogue is all exposition, filled with rhetorical conversations between characters that exist only to provide story background for our benefit, all of which is painfully awkward to watch. We never see a reason for why any of these characters are the way they are; we are only told the reason. The speech is also breezy to the point of parody: how many Transylvanian vampire wives actually said “Too bad, so sad” 400 years ago?
All of which might be acceptable if “Van Helsing” was fun to look at, but it’s not that, either. The Wolf Man looks ridiculous, like someone put Jim Carrey’s Mask on a Doberman. When the human turns into the wolf, he grows to nearly two times his normal size, which left me wondering why he was never naked when he turned human again, since his clothes would be shredded and disproportioned. If you’re going to lean so much on special effects, at the expense of every other moviemaking device, at least make them look good, dammit. Worst of all is the desperate attempt by all concerned to make “Van Helsing” a franchise, as opposed to just making one good movie and seeing where it goes from there. Yes, that’s the way Hollywood works, but only if you get it right the first time. Ask the makers of “Godzilla” about that one.
Sommers has talent, but no discipline or attention span. As penance for subjecting us to “Van Helsing,” he should be required to shoot his next movie with a $5 million budget and without a single special effect. Then, the next time someone hands him $150 million, we can only hope he’ll know what to work on first. But just in case he doesn’t, I’ll spell it out for him: It’s the story, stupid.
Two-Disc Collector's Edition DVD Review:
In an attempt to make a quick buck off the upcoming release of the third "Mummy" film, Universal has released a new two-disc collector’s edition of “Van Helsing” that isn’t at all different from the original DVD. Unlike the other re-releases (“The Mummy,” “The Mummy Returns” and “The Scorpion King”) dropping on the same day, “Van Helsing” won’t be available on Blu-ray, and it won’t feature any new bonus material. Instead, it’s just a rehash of the Ultimate Collector’s Edition from 2004, which featured two commentary tracks (one with director Stephen Sommers and editor Bob Ducsay, and the other with actors Richard Roxburgh, Shuler Hensley and Will Kemp), as well as a host of other (mostly lame) extras. Fans of Universal’s classic monster movies may find the four-part featurette “Van Helsing: The Story, The Life, The Legend” interesting, and the SFX featurette “Bringing the Monsters to Life” doesn’t feel dated, but that’s about the extent of the good material.