Director: Len Wiseman
Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Shane Brolly, Michael Sheen, Bill Nighy
MPAA Rating: (for strong violence/gore and some language)
Running Time: 2:01
Release Date: 9/19/03
Review by Mark Dujsik
Here's a high concept for you: vampires vs. werewolves. That's the premise behind Underworld, a movie so focused on setting up its sequel that it forgets to set up itself. It postures and poses, growls and howls, and does very little else. The story abandons the mythology of its back story in exchange for conspiracies, backstabbing, confused and confusing reasoning, secrets taken to the temporary grave, and lots of gunplay. None of it seems properly motivated because the vital background information is kept until the climax, making all of this stuff that doesn't make any sense even more baffling. Most of the problem lies in the fact that we have no grounding in this world. Characters' motives are too complex and not enough time is spent on developing them. We have a shadowy idea of what everyone wants, but the question of why they want it remains foggy all the way through. It's a great looking world, though, that sets its gothic sensibilities against gloomy modernity. That modernity both compliments and undercuts the movie, as it also brings the supernatural beings down to the repetitive mortal plane during the action sequences.
It was a dark and stormy night in anonymous European city. Then again, it's always dark and continuously stormy in anonymous European city, but I digress. Selene (Kate Beckinsale) is a Death Dealer, a vampire whose sole job is to hunt down and kill werewolves or lycans (from "lycanthrope"), as they're called here. She and her disposable assistants track down a group of lycans in the subway, and a shootout ensues. It turns out that the werewolves have designed a new type of bullet that emits a lethal dose of ultraviolet radiation after penetrating a vampire's skin and that they were chasing after a human named Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman). Selene relates this information to Kraven (Shane Brolly), the acting head of the vampire coven, but he is dismissive, sure that the werewolves are still no threat after he killed their leader six centuries ago. The only problem is that Lucian (Michael Sheen) is still alive and is able to bite Michael and steal some of his blood to continue with an experiment to make a werewolf/vampire hybrid. Selene decides to protect Michael, but Kraven definitely won't have any of that.
There's a lot more going on here that would either take too much time to explain or cause too much of a headache for me to try and sort through to make much sense of it. I know there's an important group of vampires on their way to attend the reawakening ceremony of a legitimate leader, although I had to actually see the ceremony performed before I realized what they were talking about. I know that characters are not what they seem, but what they actually are eludes me. The screenplay by Danny McBride does not establish its world right away, which at first allows for a certain mystery but eventually becomes frustrating. Details emerge only when the plot needs them. This leads to a lot of enigmatic scenes that hint at revelations to come and end instead with close-ups accompanied by dramatic music. Even the reason behind the war between vampires and lycans is important to the twist near the end, so we're in the dark even in regards to that essential subject for a long while. The result is that it's nearly impossible to connect to story.
The characters do not fare much better, as their job is to make cool poses in the middle of action scenes and otherwise flaunt their attitude. Like cats, werewolves and vampires always land their feet, so once one of them jumps off a tall building, it's traditional to immediately rise and start swaggering. Kate Beckinsale stomps around, contorts her face slightly, and barks orders in staccato, hoping no one will notice she's too dainty to appear tough. Meanwhile, Shane Brolly plays Kraven with face contorted to the point of coming across constipated while yelling or otherwise frothing, hoping no one will notice how unconvincing an impression he leaves. A few supporting players hit the right marks, particularly Michael Sheen as the grungy, tortured Lucian and Bill Nighy as the powerful vampire chief Viktor. The production design by Bruton Jones does a credibly serviceable job realizing the vampiric motif, and the monochromatic cinematography by Tony Pierce-Roberts creates a stark but thoroughly visible world.The odd thing about Underworld is that its characters seem a bit too natural. For the most part, the action revolves around characters shooting at each other while in performing standard slow motion acrobatics. Sure, the bullets are full of ultraviolet radiation or liquid sliver and the characters look unnatural, but there's still something slightly off and inescapably boring about supernatural creatures in such ordinary scenarios.
Copyright © 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.