Though Hugh Jackman is indeed somewhat lupine in aspect, this should no longer dictate his career decisions. One wolfen character—in his case, Wolverine in the X-Men films—is enough for any actor. As the eponymous hero of writer-director Stephen Sommers’s underlit monster mash Van Helsing, he plays a massively backstoried and arbitrarily amnesiac version of the famed vampire hunter originally in Bram Stoker’s Dracula—this time funded by the Vatican, wielding a rapid-fire crossbow, and suffering from a touch of lycanthropy.
From any other filmmaker, Van Helsing might be ignored as forgettable big-budget schlock, but Sommers has shown a talent for the creature feature, which makes this a puzzling fiasco. His two Mummy films were premium popcorn fare, the eyebrow-elevating F/X joyfully expanding the imagination and rarely crowding the well-tuned comic acting. (He did not helm the mediocre Rock-starring prequel The Scorpion King.) In Van Helsing, the orgy of morphing, shrieking, lightning-cracking, and habitual rope-swinging quickly turns oppressive. Sommers shoehorns Count Dracula (wall-walking, drearily camp Richard Roxburgh), the Wolf Man, Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein’s piecemeal man, and lesser beasties into a time waster of a plot seemingly culled from various fan fiction sites. The central fang-man hopes to give his gremlinoid spawn (incubated in thousands of Matrix-y slime sacs) the gift of life by stealing Dr. Frankenstein’s secret, while a Transylvanian princess (Kate Beckinsale) must lift a curse on her family by destroying the count. But the direction and acting are so leaden that the film evokes not some Kill Vlad B-movie Valhalla, but last year’s truly dreadful League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, in which another Dracula player (Mina Harker), the Invisible Man, Captain Nemo, and other fin de siècle pop personalities met up and discovered they didn’t have that much to say to each other en route to destroying, I believe, Dorian Gray. (A better recent precedent for this sort of period-piece shenanigans is Shanghai Knights, lensed by Mummy DP Adrian Biddle, with its witty intersection of Sherlock Holmes, Jack the Ripper, and Charlie Chaplin.)
Van Helsing starts in black-and-white, with torch-bearing villagers marching on Dr. Frankenstein’s lair, the broad expressions conjuring Mel Brooks without even a glimmer of humor. When the monster-hunters later move through a mirror to Dracula’s snow-swept castle, the setup suggests an Eclipse gum ad similarly drained of mirth. Through it all, Jackman appears distracted, perhaps memorizing the more intricate numbers for his Boy From Oz role, and where The Mummy‘s Brendan Fraser would have waited a beat to deliver some deadpan rejoinder, Jackman mutters something so completely uninspired that one imagines Sommers’s script a vast field of “TK”s and “fill in joke later!”s. (Or as long as we’re envisioning movie biz scenarios, could it be that some bean counter excised the humor and upped the order for more CGI tomfoolery?) The ringleted Beckinsale sports a two-kopeck accent and an ill-advised jumpsuit, occasionally pausing to announce things with inscrutable gravity: “I have never been to the sea,” she tells her comrade in arms. “I’ll bet it’s beautiful.” (Only David Wenham, as the monastic version of the Bond films’ device developer Q, appears to be having any fun.) When Dracula offers to shine a light on Van Helsing’s fogged past, our titular hero replies with what might be the mantra for all involved: “Some things are better left forgotten.”