Universal // 2004 // 132 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Steve Power (Retired) // October 9th, 2009
The one name they all fear.
Legendary monster hunter, Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) has his work cut out for him. The Vatican has dispatched him to Eastern Europe to do battle with no less than three of the classic Universal monsters -- Dracula, The Wolf Man, and Frankenstein's Monster. What follows is the sort of action-filled mayhem one might expect from director Stephen Sommers (The Mummy). The film came, was seen, and got its ass critically kicked by summer audiences and critics alike, but is it worth a second look on Blu-Ray?
Van Helsing sort of came and went, amidst the sound and fury of a particularly mediocre summer season. The box office take wasn't horrible (it was hardly a bomb), but the harsh critical and audience drubbing pretty much ensured the franchise wouldn't last beyond a single film. Make no doubt about it, Van Helsing is one bloated mass of a movie.
With The Mummy behind him, Stephen Sommers decided to create something of a tossed salad with every other property in the Classic Monsters stable. Dracula is there for the staking, Frankenstein's Monster lives, and the Wolf Man howls at the moon. For good measure we get Igor, Dr. Jekyll, and Van Helsing himself. The script moves from action to action like a comic book crossover, and Van Helsing is far from the decrepit old fart depicted so captivatingly well by Anthony Hopkins a decade or so earlier. Hugh Jackman's Gabriel Van Helsing (He and Abraham Van Helsing are brothers, or cousins, or something) is all video game character, with his leather trench coat; distinctive hat, belts and buckles; spinning ginsu blades; fully automatic repeating crossbow; and big nasty hand cannons. Jackman certainly brings flair to the role, such a charismatic bastard you can't help but go along for the ride, no matter how goofy it is. While he isn't done many favors by the script, he does manages to keep the whole thing on the rails. I wish I could say the same for Kate Beckinsale (Underworld), who is saddled with the worst stage drama accent I've ever heard in my life; and Richard Roxburgh, whose portrayal of Dracula is so insanely over-the-top I dare say he's is still orbiting the planet somewhere.
The supporting cast works well enough. Sommers mainstay Kevin J. O'Connor is fun, as always, and I like to see David Wenham (The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers) pop-up. The real treats however are Shuler Hensley's portrayal of Frankenstein's Monster and Robbie Coltrane's (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) cameo as Mr. Hyde. Both men perform admirably under makeup and CG effects, and their characters are attention grabbers.
On the production side, lavish set designs are augmented by some solid direction. If nothing else, Sommers has proven he's a capable handler of action, and Van Helsing is no exception. Things get ridiculous, sure, but the movie's action is never too chaotic to follow. The costumes and designs are also pretty excellent, showing a great attention to details and inventiveness. The crew has done a splendid job of updating the classic looks of these critters, while still making them instantly identifiable.
On the flipside, the overabundance of CGI is also typical of a Sommers film. The quality is usually pretty good, but there are peaks and valleys all over the place, many times rearing its ugly head in a situation where practical effects would have knocked a scene out of the park. Who am I to question this guy? He's obviously done more $100 Million plus grossing films than I have, but there are several instances where I longed for a practical effect (or seven) to offset the CG grotesquery.
This is one Blu-Ray disc that I can whole heartedly condone on the technical level. All of the visual splendor and computer graphics on display are certainly well served by Universal's 1080p transfer. The picture is next to flawless and doesn't look "edgy" or compressed. The Noise correction hasn't been cranked to 11, leaving a simply stunning, film-like image with a mix of color and contrast that pops. The sound is every bit as good, with an ear-splitting DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track that will rattle your walls and your brain.
The bonus material is all ported from the snazzier 2008 Special Edition and, while it's not quite an all-encompassing trip, what's there is worth a look-see for those who haven't seen it all before. Sommers may not have the best hand at writing or directing, but he's got a passionate heart and definitely believes in what he's doing. As far as blockbuster casts go, everyone looks to be having a good time, and it certainly translated to the screen. It's an engaging set of stuff.
We've firmly established that that plot is dumb, and I'm sure it's been argued Van Helsing represents everything wrong with big studio filmmaking in the late 90's and early 2000's. Yet at its heart beats the kind of film that could awaken your inner 10-year old. The action sells the preposterousness of the plot and, in spite of a lengthy running time, the whole package clips along at a pretty rapid pace. Sure, the film is like a Hobbit's cellar, packed floor to ceiling with cheese, but it's a laugh. It doesn't border on parody or satire, as some would say -- it's nowhere near that clever or self-aware -- but it plays the melodrama in much the same fashion as the classic monster movies which preceded it. Sommers may have crafted a cutting edge CG blockbuster, but it's a blockbuster that's cobbled together like a Frankenstein monster, from the bits and pieces of old Hammer Horror flicks and Hollywood monster pictures. Is Van Helsing a "good" movie? No, but it sure as hell is fun, far removed from the typical Hollywood summer failure most associate with it. It's the perfect choice for a night with the older kids, especially this time of year.
Yes, the flick is trash, has little in the way of plot, uses CGI effects to excess, and plays to the typical weaknesses of the summer tent pole. However, if (like me) you're the sort who occasionally likes to dig into a lackluster blockbuster, than you could do a hell of a lot worse than Van Helsing. The heart is there, Sommer's love of the source material is there, and Jackman and Roxburgh are having a ball. Try it, you may just find yourself smiling once in a while.
Guilty of being dumb fun that does a good job of passing an evening.
Review content copyright © 2009 Steve Power; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 132 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Image Gallery