By Vic Holtreman
Short version: If you watch this you won’t get “the great American film”, but you will get a cool concept, a tough heroine, and a pretty wild, if sometimes silly, ride.
I finally got around to watching Underworld today. I tried the other day, but the first 10 minutes led me to believe that I was about to waste the following 110 minutes of my life, which could be better spent say, reorganizing the garage. But, I did have it home from Netflix, and the wife and daughter were out, so I figured what the heck… it might make for a good napping opportunity.
Imagine my suprise when I found this to be the first movie I’ve seen that breaks my “if the first 10 minutes stink the entire movie will stink” rule. Now understand that I’m talking strictly “popcorn flick” level here, and nothing beyond that, but for what it was, it actually got better as it progressed.
Either that or I just became numb to the whole thing.
The plot is actually fairly interesting (and might have made for a better film if done by a different group of people): Werewolves and vampires have been at war for 600 years and the vampires are winning. Our hero(ine) is Selene (played by fanboy favorite Kate Beckinsale), a soldier-class vampire who enjoys her work and is actually getting melancholy over the fact that there are so few werewolves left to dispatch.
Underworld opens with a number of shots that told me immediately that this movie was going to be totally and completely style over substance. Don’t ask me how, it’s a gift. Don’t get me wrong: it does look cool, but after a while too much frosting and not enough cake just isn’t very appetizing.
High on the “cool factor” is a shot right at the beginning where Selene drops about 150 ft from the top of a building. They show it in two shots, a long one from the top and a shorter one from about 20 ft off the ground down to where she lands decisively in a crouch. From there it’s an on-foot chase scene down into a subway where Selene and a couple of partners are following two guys who one can only assume (correctly) to be werewolves. The action is so fast and furious and the characters (with one exception) all look so similar, that it was hard for me to keep track of who was doing what to whom.
Lots of gunfire and gadgetry in use (old weapons don’t cut it anymore, don’t you know) as Selene wanders through an old sewer system chasing baddies. At one point we see (and Selene hears) a bunch of guys watching two werewolves battling it out. Turns out that it’s kind of a werewolf “Fight Club”, which does not impress their leader once he arrives on scene.
Selene returns to the vampire mansion, which once inside reminded me of a scene from Eyes Wide Shut with people sitting and lying around decadently. She suspects that the werewolves (who are referred to throughout the film as “Lycans”, which I suppose sounds more hip) were after a human: a med student named Michael Corvin (played by Scott Speedman) for reasons unknown. The current leader of the vampires (make that leader of the “Coven”… more hipness), doesn’t believe a word of what she says. Members of the coven think she’s infatuated with Michael, but of course it turns out that he is a key factor in the long-running war.
Underworld starts out as an MTV/Technopunk kind of movie but does at some point rise (slightly) above that. It’s certainly no Blade, but except for some boring stretches it did manage to entertain. Unfortunately this was in production when The Matrix was the big thing, and it draws from that film heavily as far as visuals: Form-fitting black leather and long coats are everywhere, lots of wirework in the stunts, and even one scene reminiscent of Neo waking up in his gooey pod in the Matrix.
Towards the end the action turns pretty non-stop, with the exception of the film intermittently cutting to Michael strapped to a table trying to get free. It was very odd and out of place as they cut to that multiple times. Kind of reminded me of the scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail where during the “Knights of the Round Table” sequence they cut to the old guy hanging in the dungeon and clapping his hands.
Kate Beckinsale actually handled herself quite well, doing most of her own stunts and conveying some “don’t mess with me” attitude and playing it straight as opposed to tongue in cheek or just plain over the top. About the only other actor that impressed me was Kevin Grevioux in the role of Raze, who was basically an enforcer/bouncer kind of throwaway character, but really stood out whenever he was onscreen. Kevin was also one of the guys who came up with the story, and I was stunned to hear that his unbelievably deep, echo chamber-like voice was not computer enhanced!
Overall, just call it a guilty pleasure that might go down easier with a couple of beers under your belt.
Quite gory for what the director claims is actually an action film, it definitely earns it’s R-rating.