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First a word of warning. There are a number of people who would be best advised to avoid Van Helsing. If you dislike cgi, if you're a purist, if you're looking for something "realistic", or if you're looking for a slower-moving, understated film that's a deep character study, you'll more than likely hate this film.
Set around the turn of the 20th Century, Van Helsing features the titular hero (Hugh Jackman) taking a break from his usual "monster slayer" activities, which are commissioned by the Catholic Church, to pursue a grand plot initiated by Dracula (Richard Roxburg) involving the Frankenstein Monster (Shuler Hensley), the Wolf Man (Will Kemp), and the two last surviving members of a Transylvanian family that has long been battling the vampire.
Van Helsing is a fast-paced, computer graphics-laden horror/adventure/fantasy film wherein Universal re-imagines its core stable of classic horror characters. I actually like cgi, I'm not a purist, I love the genres--I'm not looking for realism, and I love fast-paced action-oriented thrill rides as much if not more than I love character studies.
As for the character remakes, Van Helsing becomes a slick retro-Matrix-styled macho action hero, part James Bond/007, part Indiana Jones, part Buffy the Vampire Slayer with a secret Catholic Church order filling in for the Watcher's Council and the Bond "Q Branch" combined. Dracula becomes a suave, scheming, mad scientist who looks like a romance novel hero. Frankenstein's Monster becomes much closer to Mary Shelley's depiction of an intelligent, loquacious, tormented, slapdash victim of a misguided doctor. And the Wolf Man, when wolf, becomes a cgi generated over-sized, super-agile, hyperactive beast. That should already turn off all of the purists.
The look of the film is lush, with lots of unusual point of view shots, exotic locations and computer-generated environments. CGI is used extensively for the human characters in the film as well as the monsters--it's frequently employed to enable physics defying stunts and amazing, far-ranging "computer camera" transitions. Van Helsing provides a good argument for such extensive digital assistance, as many of the visuals would be simply impossible to achieve through any other means and substituting some of the creatures with mechanicals, animatronics, special effects makeup and the like would have caused the film to go far over its already outrageous estimated budget of 160 million.
The plot, while not deep on characterization, couldn't be more full of events and action. Combined with the extravagant visuals and quickly changing, sprawling locations, the result is epic in scope. Director/writer Stephen Sommers, who was also responsible for remaking the image of another classic Universal character in The Mummy (1999) and The Mummy Returns (2001) (probably the reason the Mummy is not present in here), begins Van Helsing in a black and white scene that wonderfully recreates the feel of the James Whale-lensed Frankenstein films, including referencing a number of shots, scenes and characters from those classics.
After the titles, we move into a color-filled world ala The Wizard of Oz while we're treated to a brief character-establishing scene of Van Helsing battling Mr. Hyde in the bell tower of Notre Dame. Sommers then quickly whisks us away to the Vatican, where Van Helsing receives his orders.
This whirlwind beginning can be almost overwhelming--it certainly is visually--and it takes a moment to get up to speed and catch our breath, but once we settle into the town square of Transylvania, we're enraptured by the story and the pacing reaches a more sustainable level. Although fantastical at heart, the performances from the principle cast members help anchor the film in "reality". Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Roxburgh, Henley and David Wenham all turn in nuanced performances that imply the depth of character that the film does not have the time to fully explore.
The intense action throughout the film combined with the cgi and spectacular sweeping camera moves often gives Van Helsing a feel somewhere between a comic book film and a video game. That fact might turn some viewers off, but as innovative, suspenseful, exciting filmic art, this is years ahead of most other recent releases. In fact, the sophisticated technological wizardry and entrancing epic storytelling is somewhat reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings films, which makes me wonder just what other viewers see in those to enable them to consistently sit high on the IMDb Top 250 list while Van Helsing struggles to attain a slightly above average rating. Perhaps Van Helsing deserves a more tempered first or second viewing from those who have summarily dismissed it due to unjustified expectations/preconceptions. This really is an outstanding film that at least deserves to be appreciated on a technical level, and should be easy enough to enjoy for its action-oriented storytelling prowess as well.
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