In a wonderful black-and-white prologue, Sommers pays his most direct tribute to the original Universal horror films: As Dr. Frankenstein (Samuel West) celebrates his experiment's success, a torch-bearing mob gathers to put an end to it. But an unexpected visitor spoils the party. Count Vladislaus Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) pops in to exercise his rights over the monster accorded by some prior agreement with Frankenstein. Before more details about this nefarious plan can be made known, the monster escapes and falls headlong into the clutches of the mob.
Flashing forward a year to late 19th-century Paris, the film switches to color and the exploits of monster hunter Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman), who is having a hell of a time hauling in the runaway Mr. Hyde (aka Dr. Jekyll). But Van Helsing is no hero to most--authorities deem him a murderous vigilante operating outside the law. Indeed, Van Helsing takes orders from a group that presumably doesn't exist--a secret cabal of monks, imams and other religious figures who operate from below the Vatican, looking out for the well-being of mankind. In a pithy nod to the James Bond films, Van Helsing returns to this clandestine base where he is equipped with assorted super-weapons and told to immediately report to Transylvania to do away with Dracula before the Count and his minions (including an assortment of vampires and werewolves) are able to execute some unspecified plan of apocalyptic proportions.
Joined by a Q-like friar named Carl (David Wenham)--assigned the obligatory dual role of comic relief and brainy sidekick--Van Helsing no sooner arrives in spooky Romania than he's saving a village from Dracula's three marauding brides. That, in turn, earns him the trust of Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale), the last in a long line of vampire hunters sworn to kill Dracula for the salvation of the family.
From this point forward, as Van Helsing, Valerious and Carl set out to do in the undead, the story becomes both hopelessly convoluted and curiously simplistic. Alternating between a series of increasingly preposterous set pieces and an accumulation of overplotted complications and reveals that create more problems than they resolve, "Van Helsing" suffers its own kind of monstrous transformation. Like the Frankenstein creature, awkwardly pieced together from the remains of older, better movies, it leaves audiences much as if they had been bitten by a werewolf--pumped up and dumbed-down. Even the pivotal gimmick of stewing classic monsters into one picture isn't really new, having been done repeatedly throughout the decades in everything from 1945's "House of Dracula" to television's "The Munsters," the animated Rankin/Bass classic "Mad Monster Party," the exploitation favorite "Kiss Me Quick," "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein," and the 1987 Shane Black-scripted "The Monster Squad."
In his defense, Sommers is far less interested in being source-faithful than his predecessors--apart from the name, this Van Helsing bears no resemblance to Bram Stoker's patrician vampire slayer, but takes more after television's Night Stalker, Kolchak, by way of Indiana Jones.
Nonetheless, Universal's confidence in the film seems genuine. Studio marketing materials have even requested that reviewers "refrain from revealing plot developments" near the end of the picture. They needn't have worried. Vampires and werewolves will again roam the earth before anyone, including reviewers, makes sense of this plot.
Still, for all its nagging flaws and irritating over-reliance on computer effects, "Van Helsing" is not an abject failure. Though it falls short of being the quintessential summer roller-coaster ride cum popcorn film par excellence that it wants to be, it's a relatively enjoyable jaunt that confirms what "The Mummy" already proved, which is that Sommers, though not much of a writer, knows how to turn the screws in an action scene. He's obviously not yet confident enough in his abilities to know what Spielberg has always known--that less can be more--but for less discriminating adolescent crowds weaned on videogame bombast, it's more than adequate, smartly avoiding many of the pitfalls that beset last year's literary fusion-flick, "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" (which also featured Roxburgh).
As for the actors, Aussies Jackman and Roxburgh do a fine job of going through the motions, retaining as much on-screen dignity as possible when not trumped by CGI creations. Beckinsale's graduation from vampire (in "Underworld") to vampire hunter is less impressive, the latest in a series of career missteps that have taken her from promising serious actress to big-budget window dressing. The very talented Wenham, meanwhile, does precisely what he is asked--garnering a handful of laughs--and nothing more. Starring Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh, David Wenham, Will Kemp, Kevin J. O'Connor and Shuler Hensley. Directed and written by Stephen Sommers. Produced by Stephen Sommers and Bob Ducsay. A Universal release. Action/Horror. Rated PG-13 for nonstop creature action violence and frightening images, and for sensuality. Running time: 126 min