Digital creatures, tiresome featureThe perfect, four-word review of “Van Helsing” came from the U.S. ratings board, the Motion Picture Association of America, which in giving it a PG-13 rating cited “nonstop creature action violence.” That says it. If you want nonstop creature action violence, here it is.
“Van Helsing” takes the vampire-hunting character from “Dracula” and updates him to meet the demands of today’s audiences, which is to say that they turn him into a buff-looking superhero and surround him with enough digital effects to make your nose bleed. In the film, he’s an all-purpose monster hunter, working for the Vatican.
Everything’s still set in the 19th century, though, which means that “Van Helsing” gets to be the second film in a 12-month period to feature a giant, computer-enhanced Mr. Hyde (of “Dr. Jekyll and”), which has to be a first where seconds are concerned. Last summer’s super-Hyde was in “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” another special-effects semi-extravaganza that was set in the 19th century and was full of 21st-century cheekiness. The bad guy in that movie was played by Richard Roxburgh, who, in “Van Helsing,” plays Count Dracula. It’s as though we’d gone out for popcorn and come back and looked at our watches and somehow a year had passed.
Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) is sent by the Vatican to Transylvania to take on Dracula, who not only has werewolves working for him, along with the usual vampire brides, but has co-opted the Frankenstein monster as well. So pretty much everybody from the old movies is on board, except Abbott and Costello.
For a while, there’s a promisingly campy air to the whole thing ― a kind of high-pitched send-up of old horror movies. Van Helsing crosses himself every time he kills something. When Dracula’s brides set loose their vampire babies (oh, yeah ― there are vampire babies), they scream, “Feed, my darlings! Feed!” Roxburgh is a pretty amusing Dracula ― slightly fey and easily flustered. In his best moment, he’s absently walking up a wall, complaining about how the people of Transylvania have turned on his family even though they never take more victims than they need.
But these glimpses of personality are soon lost to special-effects bombast and relentlessly mechanical screenwriting. Per Action Movies 101, Van Helsing gets a funny sidekick (David Wenham) and a love interest with a sexy Eastern European accent and a curve-cradling monster-fighting costume (Kate Beckinsale). People make jokes in mid-combat. The last half-hour is one of those paint-by-numbers showdowns that make sure every character has a part to play (the funny sidekick gets to kill Igor from “Frankenstein,” if I remember correctly).
The special effects are stimulating enough to get you through the movie. Whoever was sitting at the computer really knows how to do a werewolf properly ― it throws itself right at the camera, all snapping jaws. Apart from that, there’s a lot of flash and thunder, but nothing much fresh. Decent special effects are (apparently) so easily had these days that movies like this have a law of diminishing returns to deal with. The only time anyone’s really surprised anymore is when something like “The Lord of the Rings” or the first “Matrix” movie comes along ― movies in which special effects serve the story, instead of the other way around. This isn’t one of those.
Action, fantasy / English
by David Moll