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Underworld: Evolution   C

Screen Gems / Lakeshore Entertainment

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Len Wiseman
Writer: Danny McBride
Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Tony Curran, Derek Jacobi, Bill Nighy, Steven Mackinstosh, Shane Brolly, Brian Steele.

Review by Rob Vaux

I've said it before and it bears repeating. Kate Beckinsale + that outfit = $10 well spent. Underworld: Evolution embraces the primary selling point of the original Underworld, delivering plenty more of what its fans really want to see -- bonny Kate in tight leather, pounding the stuffing out of anyone who says "boo" to her. Her vampire soldier Selene is appealing in a Saturday night drive-in kind of way: a devoted warrior who has avoided the decadence and ennui of immortality by throwing herself wholeheartedly into the duties of an assassin. The first film saw that rug pulled rudely out from under her with a series of lies and betrayals; now, the sequel posits what might happen as she tries to pick up the pieces. There's some juice in the prospect, and Beckinsale's cold yet compelling repeat performance belies her obvious joy at the chance to strap on her bodice again and thump a few more supernatural skulls.

Unfortunately, the rest of Underworld: Evolution can't begin to keep up with her... just like the first film, which squandered its possibilities on a glut of repetitive gunfights and pointless backstory. Once again, returning director Len Wiseman (Beckinsale's husband) can't find a way to make his universe of vampires and werewolves locked in eternal struggle more appealing. The repetition of the first film is gone, but in its place comes more Byzantine lexicon, saddled with a dash of Shakespearean pretension that raises an undue number of groans. Following the complex setup takes some doing, though fans of the original shouldn't be too hard-pressed and the rest of us can catch on fairly easily. But while the audience may be able to keep track of the rapidly multiplying plot threads, there's absolutely nothing justifying the effort. It's all pointless balderdash: whose brother betrayed whose, and who's in power and who's dead, and who did what to whom 500 years ago, and honestly kids, who cares?

On the other hand, there's Kate. In that outfit.

The action is a trifle plodding as well, though Wiseman solves the issue of spinning his wheels, which doomed the first film. The plot's more lucid elements -- entailing Selene and her half-vampire, half-werewolf lover Michael (Scott Speedman) attempting to stop the machinations of the vampire race's supreme progenitor (Tony Curran) -- lend a sense of definitive progress to the mayhem, but the fights and confrontations show no sense of flair. The ensuing monster mash combines several varieties of beastie throwdown (vampire vs. werewolf, werewolf vs. werewolf, slightly bigger werewolf vs. more batlike vampire, etc.), none of which capture the energy or imagination required to hold our attention.

On the other hand, there's Kate. In that outfit.

The performances are pedestrian, marked by well-trained British actors who signed on to practice their craft and not much more. Obviously, material like this doesn't require greatness -- and Wiseman scores a coup by bringing in the great Derek Jacobi to class up the place -- but overblown hamminess abounds, reducing the straightlaced stoicism to near-risible proportions. Bill Nighy's departed villain Viktor returns for some flashback scenes, but his delicious sense of deadpan camp departs far too quickly, and the rest of the cast never finds the rhythm to bring their characters to life.

On the other hand, there's Kate. In that outfit.

Technically, the film ranges between the competent and the laughable, saddled by low-budget special effects that fail to gain much traction and a mise-en-scène that transforms the Gothic atmosphere of the first film into untidy murk. The setting -- removed from its predecessors' nameless metropolis to the forests and crumbling castles of Eastern Europe -- demonstrates a little variety, but the high-contrast lighting style has lost its charm and leaves much of Underworld: Evolution a monochromatic bore.

On the other hand, there's Kate. In that outfit.

And in one sequence, OUT of that outfit.

Look me in the eye and tell me you can say "no" to that.

Of course, the critic in me readily acknowledges the inherent mediocrity on display here. Underworld: Evolution adds nothing to its predecessor's less-than-stellar legacy, and its release in January, devoid of advance press screenings, indicates that the studio doesn't have much faith in the product either. But the 14-year-old boy in me adores its one sterling asset, and the B-movie lover appreciates that they've kept a little depth of character behind her pale, pretty face. There's a reason why Kate is front and center on the poster... and no other reason whatsoever to spend money on the movie it's promoting. I'm still not tired of her walk, her 'tude, or her hip-hugging ass-kickery, and with a throwaway piece of genre piffle, any pleasure you can find is worth savoring. The question is, how much of Underworld: Evolution are you willing to put up with to get it?

Review published 01.20.2006.

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