Van Helsing

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Written and directed by Stephen Sommers. Starring Hugh Jackman and Kate Beckinsale. Rated 14A.

The media kit for Van Helsing includes an insert in which potential reviewers are asked to refrain from revealing plot developments involving the main characters of Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) and Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale) in the final 30 minutes of the film. That's fine with me, 'cause I can't remember any plot developments in the last half-hour of the film. By that time, my mind had already been driven into shutdown mode by a steady barrage of ear-splitting sound effects, a shrieking orchestral score, and enough computer-generated images of exploding and/or disintegrating vampires to last several lifetimes. But that's the type of sensory overkill one might expect from writer-director Stephen Sommers, who made his mark with the manic, horror-tinged action-adventure hits The Mummy and The Mummy Returns.

Van Helsing actually starts out as a really good time, and it stays that way for half an hour or so. The opening scene is an effective black-and-white homage to Universal Picture's original 1931 Frankenstein, except that here, right after giving life to his square-headed creation, Dr. Frankenstein gets offed by the 400-year-old Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh, the scheming Duke from Moulin Rouge!). Turns out the Count needs the newly electrified monster to help hatch his own offspring, which are hanging in gooey pods in his Transylvanian castle, waiting for their own special spark. But the last we see of old Bolts-in-the-Neck (for a while, anyway), he disappears in an inferno set by pitchfork-wielding townsfolk, his slain maker in his arms.

After that impressive opening, we're directly introduced to the titular 19th-century monster hunter as he encounters the murderous alter ego of Dr. Jekyll. Comically played by Robbie Coltrane, Mr. Hyde is a CGI-enhanced cross between the Hulk and Andre the Giant, and his frenzied battle with Van Helsing atop an ancient cathedral is a ton o' fun. When the wisecracking Hyde succumbs to the James Bond--style gadgetry of Van Helsing and plummets to his death, he reverts to his harmless-looking human form before hitting the ground, causing the heroic vanquisher of evil to be branded a murderer.

The good stuff continues in the next sequence, and not just because Beckinsale shows up in a studded leather corset. Her character's brother, the hunky Velkan Velarious, uses himself as bait to entice a werewolf out of the woods, and the movie's biggest thrills ensue when the savage beast attacks in a flurry of hyperviolence. The sheer ferocity of the Wolf Man makes up for the fact that he's pure pixel, and at this early point in the two-hour--plus film, it looks as though Van Helsing has what it takes to succeed as an adrenalized action-horror entry.

But then things start going terribly wrong. The thrills get further and further apart, the already dicey plot gets stretched beyond recognition, and the film's main objective seems to be to show how many cascading showers of sparks or flashing bolts of light can be squeezed onto a screen. Considering his past successes for Universal--the worldwide box-office tally for The Mummy Returns surpassed $428 million--Sommers was probably handed a blank cheque for Van Helsing's computer effects. Too bad his complete lack of restraint turned this at-first-promising flick into a jarring and prolonged audio-visual wank fest. The adolescent video-game junkies for whom it was obviously made might think it's cool, though.