Action Movie Friday: Van Helsing

It is time for Action Movie Friday, where I treat an action movie like an action movie and not like a drama and stuff. All movie reviews are subjective and while I may like something, you might think it’s shit, and vice versa!

Title: Van Helsing
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Release: 2004
Genre: Action, Horror, Monster, Comedy
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh, David Wenham, Shuler Hensley, Will Kemp, Kevin J. O’Connor
Director: Stephen Sommers
Writer: Stephen Sommers
Distributor: Universal
Budget: $160 Million
Box Office: $300 Million

Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 23%

Gingersnaps Rating: Four and a Quarter Cookies!

It’s October and that means monster movies! And in honor of the fact I’m talking about women in, at least, visual media, I’m dedicating 80% of this month to Kate Beckinsale movies! Starting with the deliciously campy Van Helsing!

Summary:

In the deep wilds of Transylvania the last of the Valerious clan is making a desperate stand against Count Dracula. Their sworn vow not to enter heaven until Dracula is destroyed. Rome, unwilling to let the family’s souls slip into purgatory, send Van Helsing, a man without a past and their best monster hunter to help. Called a murderer or a holy man and feared throughout Europe, Van Helsing’s reputation proceeds him and his reception is lukewarm by the locals. Princess Anna Valerious is not inclined to trust him. When Van Helsing kills one of Dracula’s brides and now Dracula is out for revenge and a replacement bride in the form of Anna Valerious. Now it is a race against time to find out what Dracula really wants with Frankenstein’s monster and how to kill Dracula once and for all.

Review:

I remember when this film came out the media buzz was they just didn’t get it. What did Frankenstein, Dracula and werewolves really have to do with each other anyways? I went and saw it in theatres, laughed and got my ten bucks out of the movie. There is nothing about this movie that I’d suggest taking too seriously. Personally, this is my favorite visual representation of a werewolf ever, mainly because it takes a World Of Darkness werewolf Crinos form and puts it to life on the big screen. An eight foot killing machine that still looks like a wolf and is nature’s answer to the chainsaw.

Domestically, this film didn’t make back its production budget. Because of this, we’ll probably never see a Van Helsing 2, as it is, I don’t know where they’d go with it since they tied up almost every loose end their was. If there was a sequel to this movie, it’d be the sequel no one wanted, not because the movie is that good, because the movie just didn’t leave itself anyplace to go. As a writer, I find this a bit frustrating. As a movie goer, it’s really a good deal since that means you leave the movie feeling satisfied with what you just saw.

If there is such a thing as an action, horror, comedy, then this movie fits all three words. David Wenham almost steals the show away from Hugh Jackman and Kate Beckinsale as Carl, the inventor Friar who while not a field man isn’t fazed by anything. Igor is played by Kevin J. O’Connor in an almost redux of his role as Beni from the Mummy, which if you liked him in the Mummy, you’ll get a kick out of him here. Richard Roxburgh plays the role of Dracula with such joy that it’s almost impossible not to like him. But enough about the acting…

Acts One and two of this movie move along at a fairly fast and funny clip. They set up the conflict fairly quickly, show that both Van Helsing and Anna Valerious are tough and capable of handling themselves against Dracula and his brides. (I think my favorite is Aleera but Marishka is up there too.) There is a clear goal, stop and kill Dracula, save the souls of the Valerious. The problems arise in the third act. We’ve discovered how to get to Dracula’s castle and how to destroy him. Suddenly, we throw Anna’s character off the rails to toss in a love plot that somehow they forgot and between two actors without any chemistry whatsoever. They kiss, then the movie gets focused back on what it does well, funny action stuff. And then, the movie devolves into a school project with one of the most downer endings in a movie I’ve ever seen throwing off the tone of the entire movie. Seriously folks, don’t do this. I’m going to have to take a bite of the cookie.

There were three explosions that were gratuitous and unnecessary, including Carl’s “I know what it’s for!” light explosion. One Cookie.

The fights in this movie were incredibly entertaining and not at all realistic either. This movie dabbled a bit into the steampunk aesthetic with Van Helsing’s weapons and gadgets. The fights were fun whether they were Van Helsing fighting Mr. Hyde in a belfry of a gothic church or the all out vampire versus werewolf fight at the very end. There was plenty of swinging in the air, impossible by terms of physics, but dang it, you can see what is going on, in the fights to make them enjoyable. One Cookie.

Anna Valerious definitely falls into “only one woman” in the cast syndrome. As the most developed female character, she has to be everything; the sister, the kick ass fighter and the lover. Oh, and she also has to look great doing it, despite the fact she wouldn’t be able to do jack in that corset. Dracula’s brides while dress inappropriately for the weather, could at least move in their Grecian and genie inspired get up. Between Underworld and this movie, Kate Beckinsale spends a ridiculous amount of time trying to fight in a corset. At least Underworld gives her the excuse of being a vampire. She doesn’t need to breathe then.

Once again, during acts one and two, Anna spends most of her time as a kick ass fighter and a concerned sister, which was good. She and Helsing had the rapport of two fighters doing battle together. I liked that. It was in act three where her portrayal got derailed. While she was still a good fighter, instead of being a sister, she was shoe horned into the role of a lover. A place where the movie had not led up to at all and it was clear that both Kate and Hugh were uncomfortable with it. Then we get to the end and instead of remaining independent and kick ass, Anna’s character becomes simply, yet again, a lamp for Van Helsing, the male character, to hang his emotions upon. This is a student project quality ending. It was frustrating because before this it was very clear that she had her own goals. She wasn’t replaceable to the story given how much Dracula wanted her dead or one of his brides. To do the ending they chose to do, cheapened the character and the movie.

The brides were sort of just there. This was very much a movie focused on the rivalry between Dracula and Van Helsing, not very well focused given the campiness of the movie, but more focused on Helsing and Dracula none the less. Other than the fact that they were very pretty and the mothers to Dracula’s children and yes, they didn’t mean that much to him, we never learned much about the brides. Which is sad, because they were cool looking.

So, I’m taking one bite of this cookie for cheapening Anna’s character in the final act and another bite of the cookie for not doing anything with the brides, despite how pretty and memorable they looked. Half a cookie.

This movie operates on the rule of cool without any respect for velocity, gravity, or momentum. So, forget anything you know about physics. Everything from the fight choreography to the chases was set up for maximum drama. The movie opens with the implausibility of bringing life from death with Frankenstein’s monster and ends with a gravity defying monster fight. This isn’t exactly our world. There is a lot of swinging about on ropes and jumping to implausibly high places. This is set up from the first twenty minutes of the movie and continues to the very last act. At the least, they’re consistent. There is a mixture of magic, religion and science going on here that while not expressly unique is not something much touched upon outside of Japanese manga and anime. The technology felt mildly steampunk in origin, the vampires started out with religion and somehow werewolves were made with werewolf venom. (This was never explained other than it transferred by bite.) They used enough of traditional lore to make it feel ‘real’ to the casual audience. I don’t recall if ‘only a werewolf can kill a vampire’ has been used before, but it was definitely entertaining. All in all, nothing really pulled me out of the movie to go “yeah right,” so, this movie keeps their world building cookie.

Van Helsing is a fun campy movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s an entertaining mix of Dracula, Frankenstein and werewolf lore. Sadly, the last act doesn’t hold up to the previous parts of the movie and the ending tone leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Four and a quarter gingersnaps!

(So, when is Hugh Jackman doing a Dresden movie? That is my real question at the end of this.)

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