Eye For Film >> Movies >> Van Helsing (2004) Film Review
Do you like action? Do you like explosions? Do you like battles between famous monsters? Do you like heroes with big weapons and heroines with improbable corsetry? If so, you'll probably still think that Van Helsing is a pile of shite, but you might enjoy it a great deal. Director Stephen Sommers herein lets rip with all the tricks he learned making The Mummy. The trouble is that he doesn't do much else.
As a rollercoaster ride through one action sequence after another, Van Helsing gets by fairly well. Most of the scenes are well choreographed, and the intercutting of events works well for the first two-thirds of the film, only gradually unravelling as the strands of the plot themselves come apart. This plot is never terribly coherent, but, arguably, it doesn't need to be - this is an admittedly cheesy piece of Universal-style monster movie making.
We know Van Helsing is the hero as much because of his name as anything else, though he bears little resemblance to any previous incarnation of the character; similarly, we know that Count Dracula is bad; and the rest of the story, incorporating Frankenstein and the Wolf Man, is fairly straightforward, sticking closely enough to accepted cliches to avoid any obligation toward realism. Where the film-makers have screwed up is in failing to understand that what applies to plot cannot also be applied to script. Careless dialogue is not the same as playfully bad dialogue. What results is incoherent and irritating, unnecessarily weak. It would be much easier to care about the characters if one could believe that those who created them did.
As the Indiana Jones-style hero, bizarrely ignorant of Latin, Hugh Jackman forsakes all his acting credentials and turns in a performance which is almost entirely personality-free. There seems little reason for this man to exist other than to function as a cypher and to carry the heavy weapons. Amongst these are one or two innovative instruments, entertaining to watch, ostensibly designed by nervous friar Carl (David Wenham, who acquits himself surprisingly well, bringing a soul to his comedy sidekick).
Kate Beckinsale is adequate as heroine Anna, though, like Jackman, she seems to have been cast principally because of the jokes which could then be made regarding her previous work. As a woman who has to face losing her brother and devoting her life to a family bloodfeud, she's remarkably shallow, but that's mostly the fault of the writers.
Opportunities to explore the psychological effects of Van Helsing's amnesia and moral discomfort with his work are likewise squandered. As in so many stories, the humanity of this piece must be carried entirely by Frankenstein's monster, ably played by Shuler Hensley, who manages, through his layers of make-up and prosthetics, to put across more personality than anybody else. Dracula, meanwhile, is more palatable than many of his incarnations (mercifully, he doesn't try too hard to be scary or sexy), but his overplayed coldness robs us of the chance to get close to the moral ambiguities at the heart of the story.
It might seem unfair to approach a film like Van Helsing from a literary or moral perspective, but the fact is that this is a film steeped in literary references and it is a film which largely centres on religion, making some very bold (and blasphemous?) claims indeed prior to its ultra-tacky Return Of The Jedi ending. Its opening vignette is promising, wisely presented in black and white, making its classic genre and Rocky Horror references without losing its integral pathos or its humour; unfortunately we then cut to scenes in Notre Dame which, whilst they provide an amusing commentary on the recent travesty that was LXG, are full of failings of their own.
Finally we meet a Mr Hyde, as Scottish as Stephenson intended - but did he have to be a comedy Scot? He's cartoonish where he should be scary, and something is lost. We never get a real sense of the danger which our hero is in. This mistake is repeated throughout the film. What could have been grand and spectacular is all too self-consciously ironic.
There are a number of good ideas just visible, but they seem to have been edited to death. Where the film needed vision, there is only polite compromise. It's a refreshing moment when Anna reproaches one of Dracula's brides for her giddy American villainess crowing with the remark "When you want to kill somebody, kill them;" a pity the same approach was not taken to the story at large.Reviewed on: 11 Jul 2007