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Underworld
Directed by Len Wiseman
Written by Danny McBride, from a story by Kevin Grevioux, Len Wiseman and Danny McBride
Underworld
 
Principal Cast
Kate Beckinsale -- Selene
Scott Speedman -- Michael Corvin
Shane Brolly -- Kraven
Michael Sheen -- Lucian
Bill Nighy -- Viktor
Erwin Leder -- Singe
Sophia Myles -- Erika
Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Newbert

Cold and remarkably cheerless, Len Wiseman's Underworld delivers on its promise of violent, cacophonous action and rain-slick visual style. This would-be epic tale of vampires vs. werewolves (here they're called Lycans) seems tailor-made for the Goth crowd, who are bound to see fantasy-fulfillment versions of themselves in a cast whose real sex appeal contrasts with a deadened affect and few real emotions. Headliner vamp Kate Beckinsale spends the entire film with her thin, pale frame wrapped in black fetishwear (I suppose when you're an immortal creature of the night, you're beyond the necessity of sweating), and there's nary a wrinkle in her costume as the bullets fly and creatures transform according to dictates of CGI. And there are plenty of bullets; in a film desperate to reinvent the mythology, this may be the first vampire movie with less biting than there is shooting. There is also no garlic, no crosses, and the vampires can easily spot their reflections; they aren't demonic so much as eccentric; decadents with "special" attributes, even if it's only the ability to fire semi-automatic weapons so quickly that they spray with rapid fire swiftness. They're surly, 24-hour party people.

Beckinsale is Selene, a vampire warrior in a centuries-old "blood feud" that has rendered almost all the Lycans extinct and their leader presumed dead. The surviving vampire clans are led by the ambitious Kraven (Irish actor Shane Brolly, whose performance here is truly annoying); he rules in place of the sleeping Viktor (Bill Nighy, who does a great non-comic turn playing a vampire elder). Selene distrusts Kraven, especially when she learns that he may have a role in a Lycan plot to kidnap an unsuspecting human named Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman). Michael's blood contains a gene to turn the war in the Lycan's favor; he's a kind of walking bioweapon of potential mass destruction. Selene reawakens Viktor, and the action proceeds by a series of betrayals to a bloody conclusion beneath the city they inhabit.

The whole thing is preposterous, but oddly fascinating; it adopts a dark, operatic solemnity in its quieter moments that bleeds into the frenetic action scenes. Rushing along to a thrash metal soundtrack (and murky, random background noises that were lifted from Nine Inch Nails recordings, or possibly David Fincher's Se7en), it pulls you behind in its wake. It opens with Selene, perched on the railing of a high, stone balcony while basking in a dark and stormy night; she casually jumps a hundred feet to the street below (she's in one of those grey, perpetually rain-swept cities popular in noir filmmaking, in this case Budapest; credit Bruton Jones with doing a great job of production design and location scouting). As she gracefully impacts, the first power chord crunches, and the film quickly segues into a brutal shootout on a crowded subway platform, complete with silver bullets ringing off the tiles, shattering glass, slow-motion action shots, and even a werewolf transformation, and all with only one (!) bystander casualty. It's outrageous, but it's also a stylish and irresistible jolt of adrenaline, and if Wiseman doesn't hold the rest of Underworld to this same mark, he at least finds such interesting ways to snap the audience to attention at regular intervals.

Because you can get lost (and bored) following the various soporific storylines. Screenwriter Danny McBride has a tin ear for dialogue ("Mark my words, Selene; you'll come around to seeing things my way." -- this guy makes George Lucas sound like George Bernard Shaw) and a clumsy touch with exposition and subplotting, which of course doesn't leave much else. The script trusts too readily in the ability of a minor plotline to peddle itself in your imagination, so while there is actually a good idea in the backstory that proposes the Lycan/vampire conflict as a kind of class war, too little is made of it, and even the lightweight, budding romance between Corvin and Selene gets perfunctory treatment. Selene is a standout due to her propensity for hurting people (or Lycans), and she seems to have every right to strut through the vampire mansion, which is populated by a cadre of the most ostentatious and fey bloodsuckers you've ever seen (they sit back and watch others do the fighting). The Lycan underground isn't much different, just a lot filthier. While I don't begrudge Wiseman and McBride wanting to lay the groundwork for sequels and prequels (and there is material here for many), they needed to bolster Underworld with a clearer narrative arc and fewer digressions.

The tone is intentionally kept dismal and glum; there is precious little humour to lighten it and no sunlight to wash it; like Mike Myers' "Sprockets," it has tasted despair and found it delicious. Your enjoyment will depend a great deal on whether you can accept such a mood piece for an action film. Cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts, famous for his work on Merchant Ivory productions, is the secret weapon in Wiseman's visual arsenal; he gives Underworld a bled-dry palette and a high contrast shading that, combined with wide-angle lenses, make the images look like gravestone rubbings. There were times I actually thought I was watching a black and white movie, but small touches of color -- usually blood red -- appear here and there. The effect is similar to those selectively tinted monochrome photos that make the 19th century seem indescribably sad.

Beckinsale, with balletic grace and intense concentration, is good at the stunt work and the gunslinging, and she capably sells the role of a world-weary, seen-it-all avenger who is essentially immortal and, by this point, a little bored with everything. But by adhering to Wiseman's kick for patronising the Goth subculture, she comes perilously close to moping for the film's two hour running time. One can't help but wish for a sidekick, someone whose ironic view would complement a forged steel persona. In this instance, the fledgling romance between Beckinsale and Speedman (whose character is thinly written) is ineptly handled, like most of the subplots; it could have enlivened the movie -- and her character -- with just a smidgen of charm and something to convincingly fight for. For the sequel, Selene needs to get either cheerier or nastier. Sophia Myles, as Selene's rival Erika, provides a catty distraction that's kept strictly as a plot device, but watch for the mildly fun scene where she jumps to the ceiling.

Underworld almost collapses under its pretension, but Wiseman's skillful pacing keeps it lunging forward. And I'll grant him this: the final shot is excellent.

Copyright © 2003 David Newbert

David Newbert worked for public and university libraries for several years before joining the college book trade. He lives in New Mexico, where the aliens landed.


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