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Underworld   C

Screen Gems / Lakeshore Entertainment

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Len Wiseman
Writer: Danny McBride
Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Michael Sheen, Shane Brolly, Sophia Myles, Erwin Leder, Bill Nighy.

Review by Rob Vaux

I will never be entirely ill-disposed towards any movie featuring Kate Beckinsale in tight black pleather. It's a policy I have. A modest flick like Underworld can mine much goodwill just by showing her striding through the scenery, hips swaying in effortless cool, trench coat flapping around her shapely calves. We ask little from such entertainment, and a pretty girl with good fashion sense is sometimes enough to carry the day. Sure, Carrie-Anne Moss probably wants her gimmick back, but no matter. We got Kate and her guns and her 'tude, and Underworld avoids utter disaster solely by putting her front and center.

The rest of the film is on much shakier ground. Passing itself off as a supernatural version of Romeo and Juliet, it benefits from pulpy energy and a nice sense of style, but its weak plotting and terminal poker face keep tripping it up. The world of hidden immortals which it purports to unveil has the expected amount of gothic flair -- with gargoyles topping the skyscrapers and lightning flashing right on cue -- covering up a lot of chicken wire and string. Beckinsale is Selene, an undead "Death Dealer" engaged in endless war against an army of werewolf street gangs called the Lycans. Her fellow vampires play Machiavellian games beneath the eye of a slumbering master (Bill Nighy), and dismiss their foes as unorganized thugs. That suits Lycan leader Lucian (Michael Sheen) just fine, since he has a nasty plan to take down the whole lot of them. Pity that Selene is a little more alert than her compatriots... and that Lucian's unsuspecting linchpin (Scott Speedman) quickly captures her heart in that unique way which only cinematic shorthand can render (you can almost hear director Len Wiseman saying, "They love each other, okay? Just go with it!").

The travails of such star-crossed couples are hardly new, and Underworld's Bram Stoker twist does little to separate it from the pack. The actors' chemistry ranges from tepid to frozen, while the script gives them little to work with. Wiseman responds by keeping their scenes together to a minimum, a shrewd move that, unfortunately, defeats the film's central premise. They can't be lovers on the run if they only share the screen every 40 minutes or so, and yet Underworld insists on hinging its Byzantine plot upon their forbidden union. The catch-22 ultimately proves lethal.

Things fare better when the film focuses on the larger vampire/werewolf war, a notion that, while derivative and full of holes, at least generates some excitement. The film's unnamed metropolis is consistently engaging, and Wiseman does an adequate job of conveying his protagonists' purgatorial nature: they're immortal and yet they waste all their potential in meaningless conflict. The notion carries a decent bite, and also gives Beckinsale's good-soldier heroine some interesting nuances. Underworld also has plenty of camp moments -- some more intentional than others -- combined with a few flashes of wit (Selene's shooting range features revolving busts of Shakespeare as targets) which prevent us from growing too restless.

Beyond that, it's left solely to the mood and visuals to carry the load. The high-contrast cinematography is a pleasure to watch, but it wears on our patience by the second hour. Scenes and characters start to blur together: the werewolves' leather dusters look no different than the black velvet of their foes, while every set feels like the same dilapidated warehouse. The results render the action scenes confusing and empty -- exciting images without much coherence -- and drain the heavy dramatics of their power. Wiseman also seems too fixated on the hardware, relying on weird bullets and high-tech pistols without exploring the pulp possibilities of 21st-century monster hunting. A little more variety might have done wonders with the bells and whistles.

In the end, the film clings resolutely to its few strengths, hoping we don't notice how often it repeats itself. As a distraction, Underworld works better than you might think, but it never rises above the serviceable despite the makings of something better. As it is, all it can do is keep our butts on the seats. I'll watch bonnie Kate in that outfit all day; maybe next time, they'll bring a little more to the table.

Review published 09.19.2003.

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