Movie review: Van Helsing (Classic SMBFC)

I found this in the Wayback Machine. Since a certain Guy Ritchie movie trailer came out, a few of us have been thinking about this review for some time. Hope those of you who haven’t had the pleasure enjoy! This was dated March, 2004.

This past Friday at the local cineplex, I made the tremendous mistake of paying $8.50 for the privilege of seeing Steven Sommers’s acrobatic extravaganza, Van Helsing. I thought I knew what I was getting into, for surely such a movie was not going to blow me away with it’s well woven plot or intricate characters, but I at least expected it to achieve its stated purpose of being a mindless action flick. Sadly, I was only half-correct.

Even as action movies go, the dialogue was bad, making the banter in Episodes 1 and 2 to seem witty by comparison. I think the dialogue track could have been replaced with chimpanzee noises without anyone in the audience really noticing or caring. The lines were brief and dull, and never failed to contribute absolutely zilch to the story. By the end of the movie, we really don’t know any more about the characters than we did at the beginning of the movie, except that there are fewer of them, which is convenient because you don’t really miss any of them.

The movie begins by stealing a scene from a much better movie, the classic “He’s alive!” scene from the 1931 classic Frankenstein. The scene is stolen so meticulously that Sommers even films it in black and white, unfortunately it doesn’t so much create an effect as make the audience suspect something might be wrong with the projector. This is when a very unimpressive spaz of a Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) makes his appearance on film. He does some spooky “vampirey” sorts of things, and then kills Dr. Frankenstein (Samuel West) when the good doctor suffers suddenly from a bout of conscience after having committed crimes against nature. His monster, having escaped his bondage and tossed Dracula into a fireplace, takes the good doctor’s body from the castle to a dilapidated windmill which was apparently being used to store absinthe for some reason. This is very convenient for the mob of torch bearing peasants who have every intention of setting the building on fire. Apparently not one of them actually owned any of those dozens of crates of absinthe.

The movie then jumps ahead one year, and adds color, where we find our hero, the intrepid, but culturally ambiguous Dr. Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman), sneaking around Paris in clothes that were retro even in1897. Naturally, being in Paris, we are not surprised to learn that Van Helsing is hunting none other than Dr. Jeckel/Mr. Hide. Mr. Hide (Robbie Coltrane) is an 8ft tall soccer hooligan who doesn’t bleed, despite losing a limb and being cut very badly by Van Helsing’s ridiculous buzz saw gadgets. Short lived as he is, Mr. Hide is still a better villain than Dracula.

This scene is also the beginning of the swinging. The swinging will continue from that scene throughout the rest of the movie, without stopping. With all the leaping, falling, flying, and swinging, I think Van Helsing, must have been the Sommers’s bid for being the director of Spider Man 4. I estimate that for every 5 minuets of movie there is at least one act of death defying daring-do so far fetched, it becomes ridiculous, and they occur with such regularity that they quickly lose any novelty, and become simply repetitive.

Then without any transition at all, Van Helsing arrives in Vatican City to chat with his boss and get his latest assignment. It’s a nineteenth century James Bond rip-off, complete with ridiculous gadget workshop. There we are also introduced to Friar Carl, Van Helsing’s bumbling gadgetier and sidekick (played by David Wenham of LOTR fame). He’s like a mix of Q, and Wembly from Fraggle Rock. Though funny, Friar Carl is not relief enough from the rest of the movie to make it anything less than a complete waste of time.

While Van Helsing and Carl are traveling to Transylvania, we meet the female lead, Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale). With any such ridiculous name, you naturally must have a ridiculous character, and on this Sommers delivers. Not only is she a gypsy and the last surviving member of the ruling royal class, but she has recently lost her brother in an ill-advised attempt to kill the wolfman (in the middle of the day no less).

When Van Helsing and Carl arrive in town she is immediately demanding and threatening. After he helps kill on of the Brides of Dracula with his fully automatic gas-powered crossbow, she becomes grateful to him, despite the rest of the town’s people fearing that he may bring the wrath of Dracula down upon their heads. She reveals to everyone who he is, despite being the ruler of a backwater province on the frontier of society that seems to be stuck technologically about 100 years in the past. Despite knowing everything about Van Helsing, she still remains uncooperative. Later that night she learns that her deceased brother has, in fact, become a werewolf, and is therefore not just insane, but Dracula’s lackey. Despite this, she still prevents Van Helsing from killing him. It’s amazing that with a character filled with so much logical and emotional conflict that Kate Beckinsale managed to do so little with it.

Later that evening, Van Helsing and Anna discover Dracula’s horrible plot while investigating the mysterious goings on at the old Frankenstein Castle. It appears that despite being able to make other people into vampires, Dracula is obsessed with the idea of using Dr. Fankenstein’s devices to revitalize the hundreds of stillborn vampiric pod-babies his wives give birth to after having sex with him. Luckily, despite the pod-babies complete ineffectuality and susceptibility to small arms fire, they also explode into goo shortly after being resurrected. The ridiculousness of these enemies in only outmatched by their ineptitude, and every scene devoted to making them seem dangerous becomes an exercise in comedy.

In this scene, Van Helsing also learns that Dracula knows him apparently quite well, and since Van Helsing is an amnesiac, and has a tendency to kill some or all the people he meets, meeting someone who knows something about him is of some interest. Dracula teases him about revealing the secrets of his past, but as the movie progresses, despite Van Helsing’s own claim that learning about himself is what keeps him going, he loses interest in learning about his past, and focuses on swinging from things.

Anna, in an attempt to rescue her brother, is discovered by Dracula’s gas mask wearing midget henchmen, and is almost killed by her very brother. Van Helsing and Anna then leave, and she decides that killing her cursed brother will have to settle as a second best to saving him. Then, in a twist that surprised nobody, Anna and Van Helsing discover Frankenstein’s monster hiding out at the burned out remains of the windmill. The monster is the key for Dracula to solve the problem of his offspring exploding, and so it is direly important for them to kill Frankenstein’s monster. While Anna is more than willing to quote Spock by saying, “The needs of the many out weigh the needs of the few” before putting a bullet in the monster’s very square head, Van Helsing forbids it, because his evil-o-meter is registering a 0 for the monster. Right when we expect Anna to push Van Helsing and his sappy bullshit out of the way and kill the monster, she gets distracted by the wolfman loudly leaving the premises. They decide to try to transport the monster to the Vatican so he may be protected there.

Of course, a chase scene ensues. Now, this could have been an exciting scene; after all, there wasn’t anything to swing from on the carriages our heroes were traveling in. Unfortunately, this is an example of technology taking the drama out of a scene. The forest they are riding through isn’t real, the giant cliff that the road follows for no reason isn’t real, and the carriage that Hugh Jackman is almost knocked off of isn’t real. It has all the danger and suspense of a video game you’re not playing. The scene ends with the Brides of Dracula being reduced down to one, and the wolfman being killed, but Anna has been captured by the enemy, and Van Helsing has been bitten by the werewolf. Now it’s only two days until the next full moon, despite the fact that the day before was a full moon.

The rest of the movie is a blur of swinging in which Van Helsing rescues Anna, loses the monster, kills an entire ballroom full of vampires with a sun grenade, solves the puzzle of Dracula’s hidden lair, kills Dracula as a werewolf, thus killing all his pod-babies, rescues Frankenstein’s monster, and accidentally kills Anna before receiving the antidote to lycanthropy. In this, there is far too much swinging.

The last scene of the movie is a real tearjerker. Van Helsing lights the pyre to cremate Anna, and the smoke sifts up to the sky, forming images of her rejoining her family in Heaven. You can imagine my shock when the images simply faded, and the images of Anna and her family did not turn into evil ghosts and attack Van Helsing before a cutting to black and then rolling the credits. I was equally surprised that Van Helsing did not swing off into the sunset.

Despite being a holocaust of a movie that robbed me of my time and money, Van Helsing has had at least one good consequence. It has inspired Sal and I to make the new action extravaganza, Holmes. In it, Mark Walberg will play the new extreme Sherlock Holmes, festooned with all kinds of cool crime-solving gadgetry, like a magnifying glass that can magnify lamp light into a deadly laser beam, and a pipe that shoots out a grappling hook and Holmes swings on from his teeth. He will be accompanied by Sean Astin as the plucky Watson, and will face such vile criminals as Jack the Ripper, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Adolph Hitler. I expect it to gross at least $500 million in the summer season.

– Sammer

~ by Crivelliman on May 20, 2009.

One Response to “Movie review: Van Helsing (Classic SMBFC)”

  1. The epic swinging rope moment is what did me in, and oddly all I remember to this day.

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