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ISSUE 117 VOL 19 PUBLISHED 5/14/2004

'Van Helsing' pleases, then teases

By Molly Bayrd
Executive Editor

Friday, May 14, 2004

Will someone please script a movie role that will finally allow Hugh Jackman to give audiences a real taste of his exceptional acting abilities? With his tendency to portray straightforward, larger-than-life characters, Jackman has fallen into a rut, too-often playing the begrudging protagonist (remember the X-Men and X-2).

Jackman can act. Very well. When he took on Broadway's The Boy from Oz and starred (and sang) in a London production of Oklahoma last fall, audiences began to see a new side of their beloved, claw-wielding Wolverine.

Unfortunately, Jackman neither sings nor fully flexes his acting chops in Van Helsing, his latest cinematic effort. Nevertheless, the movie is thoroughly enjoyable. With all the practice he's had, Jackman nails the character of the brooding hero.

Director Stephen Sommers (The Mummy) has done a fine job of intermingling both sci-fi and fantasy elements in this dark, comic book-like film. It's an action-packed, violent romp; highly representative of the summer blockbusters to come (next up: Troy, which opens Friday).

Gabriel Van Helsing (Jackman) is a man whose sole purpose is -- in alliance with an underground organization controlled by the Vatican -- to eliminate a multitude of fabled and frightening creatures, ranging from the Wolf Man to Dr. Jekyll. As he himself puts it, My job, my curse is to vanquish evil.

After learning of the terrorization of Transylvania by one Count Dracula, Van Helsing journeys to the country in order to vanquish his mysterious and untraceable foe. He must also aid and protect Princess Anna (Kate Beckinsale), the last remaining member of the Valerlous family, sworn to slaughter Dracula and his legions before proceeding into the afterlife.

Van Helsing and Anna, along with the comically bumbling friar Carl (David Wenham), must foil Dracula's plans before one -- or all -- off them are killed in the process.

After playing the evil Duke in Moulin Rouge and the sinister M in last year's League of Extraordinary Gentleman, Richard Roxburgh has perfected his role as the villain in Van Helsing. As Count Dracula, he is Van Helsing's newest (and most vexing) nemesis -- undefeatable by any method the famed vampire slayer can conjure. After terrorizing Transylvania for centuries, the Count has begun a new mission: to bring his born-dead offspring (stillborn because as vampires, both he and his wives are dead themselves) to life.

Shuler Hensley edges past the rest of the supporting cast with his labored portrayal of Frankenstein's Monster. His is a truly pitiable character. After his master is murdered, he becomes Count Dracula's primary target, valuable for the keys he holds to the creation and sustainability of life. His secrets are the only thing standing between Count Dracula and the successful resurrection of his bloodsucking offspring.

In spite of its thoroughly entertaining content, Van Helsing is highly lacking in exposition -- the audience never really understands who Van Helsing is, where he came from or how he is truly connected to Count Dracula or the secret Vatican sect.

The ending is also highly suspect. It's as if Sommers (who also wrote the screenplay) simply ran out of ideas. The ending is a brutally sappy sequence, seemingly inspired by a sentimental scene in The Lion King. Sommers must also have been short on ideas when he designed the look for Dracula's diminutive helpers -- they all look like the Sand People from the original Star Wars trilogy.

A rousing soundtrack, arranged by Academy Award nominee Alan Silvestri, might be Van Helsing's strongest component. With an almost synthetically sharp banjo line and a consistently urgent tone, the soundtrack perfectly compliments the whirlwind pace of the action-laced film.

Overall, the film is a no-nonsense, good time. It falls short in a few of the essentials (i.e. plot and backstory), but audiences will be hard-pressed to find a more suitable summer start-up than the eye-poppingly stylized Van Helsing.

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