Humans live under the protection of vampire warlords who have managed to keep the surrounding territory's murderous werewolves at bay through sheer brutality. Once bitten, mortals transform into mindless beasts without the ability to return to their former form... until Lucian is born, a powerful hybrid who can control his shape-shifting at will. Using his genetics, Viktor (Bill Nighy) creates a new breed of werewolf known as Lycans, who serve the vampires as daylight guardians. Enslaved and heavily guarded, the Lycans dream of freedom and a privileged few are trusted intimately by their masters. Among them is Lucian (Michael Sheen), whose loyalty is proven and whose love belongs to Viktor's beautiful daughter Sonja (Rhona Mitra). Spirited and rebellious against her father's authority, Sonja constantly bends the rules and places herself in peril.
In order to prevent her from being killed, Lucian commits the cardinal rule of his race -- he removes his slave collar, transforms into a beast, and defends her. Viktor is infuriated with this obvious contempt for the rules and condemns him to be punished and his privileges revoked. This prompts Lucian to make a bid for freedom, little realizing what -- and who -- is at stake. Audiences familiar with the original films and characters will know various plot twists before they transpire on-screen, but it's also a reasonable introduction to the franchise for new fans, as it establishes all the main threads and individuals who become important later on. I love that we were allowed to see into an earlier era before the Lycans obtained freedom from the vampires. Lucian has never been a favorite but watching his story unfold gave me greater compassion for him. It was also a pleasure to see Viktor in his element, since he makes only brief but impacting appearances in earlier productions. My only disappointment was that while Marcus' storyline was fleshed out in the second film, the other Elder has not been fully explored. Amelia does not even make an appearance, which is a shame.
The purpose of the franchise is to create a surreal existence in which two immortal forces are locked in eternal warfare. This film is the origins of that notorious rivalry and while there are moments of inconsistency with the sequels, it is arguably the best of the franchise. Its setting in the middle ages is more compelling and epic than the modern day interpretation where vampires run around with silver bullets. The costume design is somewhat overlooked but if you care to watch for details you will see some exquisite examples of period work in the luxurious coats and rich fabrics. One friend commented that in some respects, it is the werewolf version of Bravheart and there is a mild resemblance in Lucian's stirring speeches and underdog battle against the establishment ... but the vampires are not one-sided either. Everyone has motivations and reasons for their actions and so it's very difficult to completely choose a side. The look of the film in particular is magnificent -- very gothic and ghostly, from pale vampires to darkened forest lanes. There are no automatic weapons here, just broadswords and a few mean fighting sequences.
This film has the strongest script of the three and the most memorable performances. The true gem is Bill Nighy, whose steely, blue-eyed performance never wavers in the role of a ruthless warlord who would sacrifice anything to maintain power. He might make light of his "hissing" scenes in recent interviews, but it fantastic on-screen. Whatever you think of the franchise in general, you have to admit that overall it's just plain cool.