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Van Helsing   D

Universal Pictures

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Stephen Sommers
Writer: Stephen Sommers
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh, David Wenham, Will Kemp, Kevin J. O'Connor, Shuler Hensley.

Review by Rob Vaux

The proof of Van Helsing's pudding comes during one of its endless action scenes. The title character (Hugh Jackman) is clinging to the lead horse of a runaway coach, then makes a series of spectacular leaps from animal to animal until he returns to the driver's seat. The image evokes a sequence in Stagecoach where Yakima Canutt performed a similar maneuver. The only difference is, Canutt did it for real. Jackman's feat is rendered solely by computers: empty, flashy, and inescapably artificial. Thus does Van Helsing eagerly ape the classics of the past, using high-tech bells and whistles to approximate time-honored cinematic gems. Director Stephen Sommers is deeply in love with his progenitors -- you can see it in the camera angles, the cinematography, and the sets that evoke Universal's iconic movie ghouls. But while his affection is unquestioned, his approach is irreparably wrong-headed. He's a purveyor of brainless action: shiny chrome and thundering noise as ends unto themselves. In the right context, his work can be fun (witness the Mummy pictures), but Van Helsing disastrously tries to present such soullessness as homage. It's like celebrating James Joyce with a monster-truck rally.

And there is a lot of it. Sommers has never been afraid to take the volume to 11, but here it's just one long incoherent shriek of painfully obvious CGI. At times, Van Helsing almost seems like animation, so prevalent are the digital landscapes, backdrops, and boogeymen. They blend poorly with the scant live action, revealing a creative vacuum every time something of flesh and blood appears. While Sommers initially shows a flair for presentation, the sheer relentlessness of it all renders such efforts moot. Van Helsing packs each frame with some new visual kink, throttling the life out of everything in its path. Why have Dracula just talk to his brides when he can walk upside down on the ceiling while he's doing it? Never mind what they're saying, it's not interesting. Look, their jaws are morphing into lawnmower blades! Isn't that cool?

The attitude is particularly distressing given the huge number of characters and storylines in play: Sommers has to mix Count D in with Frankenstein's monster, the Wolfman (several Wolfmen, actually), Mr. Hyde, the ubiquitous Igor (Kevin J. O'Connor), a secret Vatican conspiracy, cursed Romanian nobles and an army of undead Jawas (I'm not kidding). Though united under the same basic genre, they're deceptively difficult to blend together. The heartbreak is that Van Helsing teases us with the possibility of pulling it off -- a hint of elegant plotting just visible enough to raise our hopes before crushing them flat. Van Helsing is sent by the Vatican to Transylvania to thwart a sinister vampiric scheme and save a noble bloodline of gypsies, whose last surviving member (Kate Beckinsale) is currently on Drac's hit list. He's also pursuing questions about his past: primarily why he seems predestined to destroy evil and yet is almost as hated as the creatures he slays. There are spots -- painfully fleeting spots -- where one can feel it starting to click, but ultimately, they serve only to remind us of what's being smothered by the brickload of visual effects dumped unceremoniously on our heads.

Beneath it all, the cast is mere supercargo. Over-the-top is the order of the day, as the performers try hopelessly to compete with the apparatus devouring them whole. Richard Roxburgh's Dracula is a camped-up riff on Bela Lugosi, while David Wenham (Faramir from The Lord of the Rings) clings to a silly English accent as Van Helsing's sidekick Carl. Amid their mugging, Jackman is a model of Herculean restraint, relying on his ample charisma in lieu of a real character. Beckinsale does a little better with a polished variation on her Underworld ass-kicker, but only the unknown Shuler Hensley truly shines, bringing the right mixture of dignity and pathos to Frankenstein's monster. The game is impossibly rigged against the lot of them, for no human voice can hope to leave an impression amid such crushing bombast.

The saddest part of Van Helsing, though, is the puppy-dog adulation it shows for its betters. It idolizes James Whale and Tod Browning even as it mangles their work beyond recognition; it even opens with a promising black-and-white tribute that soon vanishes like the rest of the film's worthwhile elements. Love can be repulsive when married to the belief that everything is better with explosions... and Sommers doesn't know how to do it any other way. Van Helsing is a true monstrosity, its good intentions paving the road straight to cinematic hell. That such filmmaking is standard practice these days only reminds us just how low our standards have dropped.

Review published 05.07.2004.

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