Writer/director Stephen Sommers (The Mummy, The Mummy Returns) continues his ham-handed pillaging of Universal Studios' monster movie library. This time around, he gets his mitts on Dracula, the Wolfman and Frankenstein, pumps them full of steroids and lets them loose on an unsuspecting public. To call Van Helsing “a roller coaster ride” (and, believe me, every hack film critic in America will) is an insult to the emotional subtlety and storytelling depth of most theme park rides (including Ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds).
X-Men hunk Hugh Jackman stars in this preordained summer blockbuster as Gabriel Van Helsing, a late 1800s monster hunter who works for the Vatican (if the Vatican were run less by the Holy See and more by Britain's MI5). Our Victorian version of James Bond has got all the spy-fi trappings, from the high-tech weaponry to the secret missions, right on down to the cool gadget lab run by a bumbling British inventor.
As the film gets cranking, our hero is called upon to battle Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on the streets of Paris. (A sequence that brings back uncomfortable memories of last summer's strikingly similar stinker The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.) Actually, the sequence is probably the best one in the film, nicely mixing computer-generated effects, breathless action and a witty hunter/prey relationship. Unfortunately, immediately after this impressive intro, our hero is shipped off to Transylvania for the purpose of mixing it up with Count Dracula.
Seems that Dracula has made a devil's bargain with Dr. Viktor von Frankenstein (who, conveniently, lives right next door). As this movie would have us believe, vampires can breed, but only give birth to egg sacks filled with dead babies. Naturally, if those egg sacks are pumped full of lightning-fueled electricity, they will be brought to life as little gargoyle creatures, but only—and I can't stress this enough—if the electricity is filtered through Frankenstein's Monster. Now, apparently, you can use a werewolf as a breaker switch, but that's really only a stopgap solution.
And you thought Sommers couldn't come up with a plausible reason for bringing all these characters together.
Anyway. Van Helsing strides into Transylvania and starts dispatching vampires with the able assistance of Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale), one of those leather-clad, high-heeled superbabes that the Victorian era pumped out with monotonous regularity. Dracula is around. A werewolf shows up. Frankenstein's Monster is in there somewhere. Everybody punches each other, runs around, shoots stuff and causes random things to blow up. The only thing missing is a joystick and a jump button.
The whole snicker-inducing enterprise is pushed into the realm of total unintentional camp by overactor Richard Roxburgh (Mission: Impossible II and—sorry to say—The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) doing the worst Dracula impersonation ever. The opening scene between Drac and Dr. Frank borders on riotous. Seriously, Leslie Nielsen did a far subtler job playing the Count in Mel Brooks' Dracula: Dead and Loving It.
Sommers is a one-trick pony if there ever was one. As soon as he finds a shot, a shock, a gag that he likes, he repeats it over and over and over again. About the sixth time someone swings across the screen on an impossibly long rope, you'll know what I mean. I'm pretty sure Sommers didn't direct this film so much as hang out in the special effects department, drink a lot of Red Bull and go, “Dude, that's wicked cool!”
Sommer's whisper-thin script plays fast and loose with Universal's classic monsters, basically making up its own rules as it goes along. (There's, apparently, only one way to kill Dracula and, man, is it silly.) The characters, needless to say, are devoid of depth. Van Helsing himself is an amnesiac whose backstory is simply held over for the inevitable sequel.
The film's saving grace is that it moves so quickly you'll hardly have time to notice how silly it all is. With a fight scene or a special effect dropped in every 30 to 60 seconds, there's hardly time to pause and ponder the finer points. Like, for example: Why would vampires need to breed when they can just bite people and make more vampires? Or: If werewolves turn human when the moon goes behind a cloud, why don't they turn human when they go inside a house? And, most puzzling of all: Why are the Oompa-Loompas working for Count Dracula?
Van Helsing is loud, frantic, nonsensical and filled with unintentional hilarity. Trust me: It will be a monstrous hit.