Directed by Stephen Sommers, starring Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh, David Wenham, Shuler Hensley, Elena Anaya, Will Kemp, Kevin J O'Connor, Silvia Colloca and Josie Maran.

12 months on from a glut of disappointments, the blockbuster season begins again with a film that would seem to have a little more work to do than its peers. It's not Shrek returning to gurn, it's not Brad Pitt in a toga and it's not New York after the Ice Age. It's a bit of a mystery, a $150m one. But then, the people behind it do have 'form' in the best sense of the word. Director Stephen Sommers grafted matinee action to CGI with 'The Mummy' and its sequel; Hugh Jackman was comic fans' decades-old wish made flesh/steel as 'X-Men's Wolverine and Kate Beckinsale enhanced her ass-kicking credentials with 'Underworld'. And if you think the sound of those odds swinging is loud, they've got nothing on the whoops and cheers once this concoction hits cinemas. Mayhem and monsters don't come much better.

When it's a dirty job, Van Helsing (Jackman) has to do it. He's the
Vatican's muscle, sent in to solve the problems the Church can't explain - or doesn't really want to. With his roving remit as strongarm man for the top secret Knights of the Holy Order, he tracks ghouls, madmen and anything else that only comes out at night, always making sure he's on the right side of the dead-or-alive equation by daybreak. There's no credit for any of it,
however, because the Vatican denies all knowledge of him, while everyone else just wants to claim the bounty on his head. And now his in-the-shadows existence has just got a whole lot tougher. With his gadget-inventing friar sidekick, Carl (Wenham), he must travel to Transylvania, find Anna Valerious (Beckinsale), the woman fighting a losing battle with her blood sucking neighbours, and find out just what Count Dracula (Roxburgh) is planning to unleash on an unsuspecting world.

With Sommers' work it's hard to know where the fan stops and the director starts and 'Van Helsing' unites horror's greatest character with Frankenstein's Monster and The Wolfman in a film that, from the moment its black-and-white prequel begins, keeps on ramping up the thrills and effects and won't just take 'wow' for an answer. It's a world where Jackman sucks up the spirit and showmanship of The Man With No Name and Indiana Jones, Beckinsale gives good sword and Wenham makes you forget his noble turn as Faramir in 'Lord of the Rings' with a performance that's comedy coward genius. And just like 'The Mummy', Sommers juggles numerous plots at once, making sure that whatever beyond-the-grave bother one of his heroes has ended up in, the other two are bound to be facing a whole lot worse. Not a minute of the two-and-a-quarter-hour running time is wasted and you'll prise yourself out of the seat, giddy that a great new franchise has been born and miffed beyond belief that this instalment had to end so soon.

Anything else that comes out this summer has a lot to live up to. Or should that be die?

Harry Guerin