Tricked out in leather and heavy metal hair, the British actor Michael Sheen takes a lively break from his usual high-crust duties to bring wit, actual acting and some unexpected musculature to the goth-horror flick Underworld: Rise of the Lycans. The film, a prehistory to the first two Underworld movies, rewinds time to when the werewolves, or Lycans, led by Lucian (Mr. Sheen), began rattling the chains clamped on them by their vampire masters, a louche crowd that answers to Viktor (the British actor Bill Nighy).
Set primarily in the lair of the vampires, a dark castle bathed in moon-blue light and dappled with pools of black shadow, the film offers few surprises other than Mr. Sheen's vigorous, physical performance. Although the presence of Mr. Sheen - who currently can be seen twinkling as David Frost in Frost/Nixon and is probably best known for playing Prime Minister Tony Blair in The Queen - is initially distracting, it soon becomes the movie's greatest asset. There is, as it turns out, some benefit to having a real performance even in a formulaic entertainment like this, as shown by Mr. Sheen's commitment here and by the lackluster star turn of Kate Beckinsale in the previous movies.
Unlike Mr. Nighy, who puts an amusing camp spin on his every line and gesture, Mr. Sheen appears to have taken his monster duties seriously: his eyes pop with menace, and he howls up a mighty storm. Though the director, Patrick Tatopoulos, clearly likes the looks of the female lead, Rhona Mitra as Sonja, Viktor's daughter and Lucian's lover, he gives Mr. Sheen plenty of face time. The actor's value is particularly evident during the various fight sequences, which - because they are underlighted and, as is too often the case in contemporary genre cinema, overedited - come across as needlessly chaotic. It's at moments like these that Mr. Sheen's bright eyes become beacons, two points of light in the murky dark.