Rhona Mitra in 'Underworld: Rise of the Lycans' (Sony/Screen Gems)

Ladies and gentlemen, may I present for your consideration the first candidate for Best Actor for next year's Academy Awards. Michael Sheen gives a blistering, fierce, and romantic performance as the enslaved hero of Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, which opens in wide release today. It ain't art, but it is hellaciously entertaining.

No one is more surprised than me. The first film in the series, Underworld (2003) brought a centuries-long blood feud between vampires and lycans (AKA werewolves) to a head in the modern day. The sequel, Underworld: Evolution (2006), explored what might happen if the two feuding clans could somehow be brought together through the presence of a hybrid wolf / bat / human. Both movies were directed by Len Wiseman, both movies were stylish to the point of being mannered, both featured CGI werewolves* transformations, and both were defined by the heroics of the murderous Kate Beckinsale, memorably packed into a skintight, black leather bodysuit atop monstrous black boots.

Without Beckinsale and Wiseman, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans charts its own path, aided immeasurably by the return of Sheen and Bill Nighy. The two had supporting roles in the first film -- Sheen as the rebel werewolf leader Lucian, and Nighy as imperious vampire lord Viktor -- and have been elevated to top billing, joined by Rhona Mitra as Sonja, Viktor's willful, defiant daughter and Lucian's love interest.

As a whole, the picture lives up to the juicy lead performances, neatly leaping over.the stumbling blocks so common in prequels (and third installments in a series), and delivering generous amounts of fast-paced action and bloody battles to satisfy both faithful fans and curious newcomers.

categories Reviews, Cinematical