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Monster Smash

Van Helsing explodes monster-movie legends with hip upgrades

"We must keep the atmosphere electrified!" announces creepy Igor in reference to an abominable experiment in Van Helsing, but he could be appraising the entirety of this enormous event movie. Breathless cutting, nonstop special effects and a pummeling soundtrack camouflage very silly plotting and mediocre-to-sappy dialogue -- and yet the thrash-and-burn technique flies. This beast is as subtle as a Red Bull enema, but it succeeds magnificently as a compulsively watchable spectacle.

Opening with cheeky confidence by morphing the Universal logo into a ball of flame, which then becomes an angry villager's torch, the ride proceeds with theme-park swiftness into an explosive black-and-white synopsis of Frankenstein. The twist is that Dr. Victor (Samuel West, admirably aping Colin Clive) now works for the smug, apparently invulnerable Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh, passable) to produce his sparking, tricked-out Monster (Shuler Hensley, yelps like Tom Hanks). Dracula needs the Monster for a diabolical scheme involving his voluptuous vampire brides (Silvia Colloca, Josie Maran and knockout Elena Anaya), but, of course, things go terribly awry.

We zoom along in color to Victorian-era Paris, where our hero, Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman, gamely mugging), emerges as an action geek's dream amalgam of Indiana Jones and Vampire Hunter D. Possibly disappointed with the results of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Van Helsing stalks the public-domain brute Mr. Hyde (voiced by Robbie Coltrane) into the belfry of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Priceless stained glass is duly smashed -- everything in this movie gets smashed -- and then we receive hard evidence of one of Van Helsing's two (count 'em) characteristics: He's a fugitive, thought a murderer by uptight straights who don't understand the monster biz -- or perhaps don't approve of sexy 1970s hairstyles appearing in the 1800s.

The richly coifed murderer/holy man flees to Vatican City, where a secret holy order houses an uncanny precursor of the gadget lab of James Bond, thus preparing him to go fight Dracula in Transylvania. Assigned as tagalong "Q" is nerdy Friar Carl (David Wenham, here being "the funny Faramir"), who, with Igor (Kevin J. O'Connor), pulls the lion's share of the film's spotty humor -- mostly involving light sarcasm, a saucy provincial girl and some unrelated viscous fluid. The mission is for the Vatican to cover its ass by sending Van Helsing to protect Transylvanian siblings Anna (Kate Beckinsale, ridiculously dolled up like Alanis Morissette attending a rave at a Renaissance Faire) and Velkan (Will Kemp, barely registering) from evil Dracula, because their ancestry is extremely important, or something.

The real point is for scary things to fly around all over the damned place, for everybody to execute nearly constant aerial swinging maneuvers that would have Spider-Man puking, and for things to go boom, both onscreen and in Universal's marketing divisions. (An animated movie, a spinoff TV series and re-releases of the Universal monster classics await you.) The lines get goofy too, as when Anna asserts, "Nothing is faster than Transylvanian horses, not even a werewolf!" and then is quickly proven wrong.

While there is a slender plot -- which even establishes its own strange new monster rules to up the ante for the bizarre climax -- any and all developments are subservient to the stunningly rendered CG action sequences. From flubbed werewolf hunts to vampettes incessantly swooping to inevitable coach chases, the film is a series of increasingly rockin' set pieces. Sometimes the visuals are cartoony; sometimes the violent grotesqueries inspire incredulity that this movie somehow sidestepped an R rating. Overall, one senses that writer-director Stephen Sommers (Universal's recent Mummy franchise) perhaps felt annoyed by Peter Jackson stealing and amplifying his enormous effects. Here, he's stealing them back, writ even larger and more visceral.

If only there were pauses to breathe. We loved Indy Jones because, besides the action, we saw his scholarly side, his bachelor vulnerabilities, his cocky charm. Here, moments are scarce when folks aren't sprouting fangs and/or slamming someone across a bleak forest, wild laboratory or even one of the most lavish masquerade balls in cinematic history. Van Helsing's second characteristic (of two) practically requires shouting over the din: He's a wandering immortal with no useful memories (apart from fighting the Romans at Masada). Thus, while our eyes are constantly bedazzled, Sommers sort of corners us into imagining a vague symbiosis with Dracula himself. This works by default, but a symphony needn't be set entirely on crescendo.

Indeed, with its super-cool weaponry, swaggering 'tude, and astonishing digital architecture, Van Helsing is aggressively entertaining. Start thinking about it, though, and you'll giggle at its madness. Three petite, nude, nipple-free bloodsucker bee-yotches prone to near-porn fits of writhing, who give birth to thousands of huge Alien-like pods containing, essentially, flying monkeys? Extra-mean Jawa-type servants? An inexplicable jerk in a top hat? A castration joke for the ladies? A lycanthropy antidote? Certainly the eternal Van Helsing and Dracula -- Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee -- never required such absurdities.

But hey, just like Roland Emmerich with Godzilla and Peter Jackson with the forthcoming King Kong, this endeavor is really about a movie geek "honoring" his inspirations. It's not deep, it's not complex, and it doesn't even pause to be eerie, but boy is it a crowd-pleaser. Its producers have obviously realized that -- bumbling Carpathian vigilantes notwithstanding -- mob rules.

 
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