Opening with cheeky confidence by morphing the Universal logo into a ball of flame, which then becomes an angry villager's torch, the ride proceeds with theme-park swiftness into an explosive black-and-white synopsis of Frankenstein. The twist is that Dr. Victor (Samuel West, admirably aping Colin Clive) now works for smug, apparently invulnerable Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh, passable) to produce his sparking, tricked-out monster (Shuler Hensley). Dracula needs the monster for a diabolical scheme involving his voluptuous vampire brides (Silvia Colloca, Josie Maran, Elena Anaya). Of course, things go terribly awry.
We zoom along in color to Victorian-era Paris, where our hero, Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman, mugging), emerges as an action geek's dream amalgam of Indiana Jones and Vampire Hunter D. Possibly disappointed with the results of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Van Helsing stalks the public-domain brute Mr. Hyde (voiced by Robbie Coltrane; he looks like the love child of Ron Perlman and Gollum) into Notre Dame's cathedral belfry. Priceless stained glass is duly smashed -- everything in this movie gets smashed -- and then we receive hard evidence of one of Van Helsing's two (count 'em) characteristics: He's a fugitive, thought a murderer by uptight straights who don't get the monster biz or perhaps don't approve of sexy 1970s hairstyles appearing in the 1800s.
The richly coifed Van Helsing flees to Vatican City, where a secret holy order houses an uncanny precursor of the gadget lab of James Bond. Assigned as tag-along "Q" is nerdy Friar Carl (David Wenham, here being "the funny Faramir"), who, with Igor (Kevin J. O'Connor), pulls the lion's share of the film's spotty humor -- mostly involving light sarcasm, a saucy provincial woman and some unrelated viscous fluid. The mission is for the Vatican to cover its ass by sending Van Helsing to protect Transylvanian siblings Anna (Kate Beckinsale, ridiculously dolled up) and Velkan (Will Kemp, barely registering) from evil Dracula. Their ancestry is extremely important or something.
Though there is a slender plot -- one that establishes its own strange new monster rules to up the ante for the bizarre climax -- every development is subservient to the stunningly rendered CG action sequences. From flubbed werewolf hunts to vampettes' incessant swooping to inevitable coach chases, the film is a series of increasingly rockin' set pieces. Sometimes the visuals are cartoony; sometimes the violent grotesqueries inspire incredulity that this movie somehow sidestepped an R rating. Overall, one senses that writer-director Stephen Sommers (Universal's recent Mummy franchise) felt annoyed by Peter Jackson's stealing and amplifying his enormous effects. Here, he's stealing them back and making them even larger and more visceral.
If only there were pauses to breathe. We loved Indy Jones because, besides the action, we saw his scholarly side, his bachelor vulnerabilities, his cocky charm. Here, moments are scarce when folks aren't sprouting fangs or slamming someone across a bleak forest, a wild laboratory or one of the most lavish masquerade balls in movie history. A symphony needn't be set entirely on crescendo.
Van Helsing is aggressively entertaining. Start thinking about it, though, and you'll giggle at its madness. Three petite, nude, nipple-free bloodsucker bee-yotches prone to near-porn fits of writhing, who give birth to thousands of huge Alien-like pods containing, essentially, flying monkeys? Extra-mean Jawa-type servants? An inexplicable jerk in a top hat? A castration joke for the ladies? A lycanthropy antidote? Certainly the eternal Van Helsing and Dracula -- Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee -- never required such absurdities.