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UNDERWORLD

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Michael Sheen, Shane Brolly, Bill Nighy
Director: Len Wiseman
Audio: English, French 5.1 Dolby Digital
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Columbia Tri Star
Features: See Review
Length: 121 minutes
Release Date: January 6, 2004

"The Lycan horde scattered to the wind in a single evening of flame and retribution.  Victory, it seemed, was in our grasp, the very birthright of the Vampires..."

Film ** 1/2

There have not been many action films featuring strong female heroines.  Aside from the Sigourney Weaver Aliens films, the offerings over the years have been few and far in-between.  However, the year 2003 presented movie fans with two power-house action films with strong female leads.  One was the much-anticipated Quentin Tarantino film Kill Bill Vol.1 with Uma Thurman, and the other was the slick horror/action hybrid film Underworld, featuring British thespian Kate Beckinsale.

On initial glance, Kate Beckinsale does not appear to be an obvious choice for an action role.  After all, she is known more for Shakespearean roles (Much Ado about Nothing) and light-hearted romantic comedies (Serendipity) than for any role that would require her to shed her cute girl-next-door screen persona.  Yet there she is in Underworld, wielding some deadly firearms and blowing away dozens of bloody-thirsty werewolves; it is akin to finding Shirley Temple in a John Woo gun-fest.  

Surprisingly, Beckinsale not only does a good job, but she is the very best thing about the film. 

Yes, she still looks cute in the role (though maybe cute is not quite the right word, considering that Beckinsale's costumes here tend to consist of the black and form-fitting dominatrix variety), but Underworld succeeds almost entirely thanks to Beckinsale's performance.

The film offers an interesting concept - a centuries-old war of attrition between vampires and werewolves (or lycans, as they are called).  Beckinsale plays Selene, a Death Dealer, a vampire whose duty it is to track down the lycans and to destroy them.  Selene is extremely efficient at this, and the film even starts out with a visually-stunning action sequence in which Selene leaps from the top of an old bell tower to track down a pair of lycans.  She chases them into a subterranean subway station in which a blazing gun fight ensues, followed by a graphically fatal encounter with a moving subway train.  But the hunt carries her even deeper into the very depths of this underworld labyrinth of pipes and tunnels, and it is there that Selene discovers a previously-unknown lair of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of lycans.

She escapes and makes her report to Kraven, the current de facto leader of her vampire clan, who questions her unlikely claims.  Selene remains steadfast in her convictions, even defying the orders of the clan at several turns.  She also makes another ominous discovery - the two lycans she had been tracking earlier were themselves stalking a specific human.  Why was this sole human so important that the werewolves would risk an encounter with the vampiric Death Dealers?  It is the central conflict to Underworld as vampires and werewolves alike clash in a race against time to acquire this singular human.  The werewolves perhaps see him as an unknowing weapon to use against the vampires, whereas Selene would just as soon kill him to prevent the lycans from using him in whatever nefarious plot they have developed (on a related note, the intriguing Prophecy horror film series with Christopher Walken also features a similar theme, with warring angels trying to capture the soul of a man to use as a weapon).

While there is a great deal to like about the potential story in Underworld, the actual execution falters somewhat.  In fact, this film is a good example of how poor casting can significantly weaken a film.  Kate Beckinsale's casting was a risky, against-type choice, but it worked quite well, and Beckinsale easily delivers the film's most watchable performance.  The rest of the cast, on the other hand, is very uneven.  Bill Nighy, as Viktor, a vampire elder who is rudely awakened from a centuries-old slumber, is menacing enough, as is his werewolf counterpart, played by Michael Sheen.  However, Shane Brolly (as Kraven, Viktor's steward) comes across as a bickering, soap opera personality.  Every time he spits out his dialogue, he contorts his face or his body so much, you almost fear that he's going to hurt himself.  He's really pretty bad (coincidentally, the biggest laughs in theatrical showings usually came when an exasperated Selene finally slugs Kraven).  Beckinsale also has a love interest of sorts played by Scott Speedman.  Unfortunately, he is rather bland in a pretty-boy sort of way and doesn't make much of an impression either when he is on-screen.  Regrettably, Speedman is simply not a solid enough thespian to pull off this Romeo & Juliet sub-plot opposite Kate Beckinsale.

Underworld could well be described as a Matrix and X-Men hybrid with a heavy dose of graphic horror.  The look of the film is quite incredible, thanks in part to the old-world scenery provided by Budapest, Hungary.  There are bell towers with gargoyle statues, cavernous tunnels drenched with musty humidity, and even a few dark and ominous mansions.  And for a modern twist, there are those numerous gun fights and a few car chases, not to mention a huge showdown finale between the lycans and differing factions of the vampire clans themselves.  The vampires have been designed in the currently popular Goth vogue - when not killing lycans, they slink around in very lacy black evening attire, sipping their wine glasses filled with (not) wine.  It's the interpretation of vampire as chic fashion model.  Even the werewolves, in their lycan form, have a somewhat homoerotic quality to their design (this was a deliberate decision by first-time director Len Wiseman to create a more sexy portrayal of the werewolf than has been seen in previous films).  Coincidentally, while there are many female vampires in the film, there are no female werewolves.

Underworld takes a few other liberties with the general mythology of vampires and werewolves.  Vampires can see their own reflections, for instance, whereas werewolves are no longer constrained by the moon's phases and are able to transform at will.  Also, these immortal enemies prefer to settle their differences using guns (albeit with bullets containing silver nitrate or ultra-violet goo) and aren't opposed to running each other down in cars, either.  The film even includes, in its finale, yet another super-powered character in blue body paint!

Wiseman envisions Underworld not as a horror film but rather as an action film which just happens to feature vampires and werewolves.  Ultimately, though, the film falls into the usual trappings of the action genre, and on the merits of the story alone, it doesn't offer anything that hasn't been seen before.  Even the general story, which holds a lot of potential, is betrayed by banal dialogue that is generally forgettable.  To this end, Underworld is predominately style with not so much substance.

I'll be perfectly honest - the film is derivative and not that great, but it still oozes with such an appealing gothic atmosphere that I found myself enjoying it a lot.  The visceral punch of the film's sleek visual elements as well as Beckinsale's irresistible allure as a gun-wielding vampire are impossible to deny and repetitively prevent Underworld from degenerating into a soap opera.  For me, Underworld is a guilty pleasure.  If horror/action hybrid films like Blade or The Crow are to your liking, Underworld may be worth a look for you, too!

Video ****

Underworld is available in either an anamorphic widescreen format or a full-frame format.  As might be suspected from the nature of the film, its color scheme is comprised of dark blue and gray tones.  There is, in fact, not a single scene filmed in natural daylight.  Fortunately, the transfer, which has solid details and good contrast levels, does an excellent job in presenting the ambience of these numerous dark scenes and preserves the film's eerily gothic atmosphere.

Audio ****

Mmm, excellent!  Underworld is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, and it is a very impressive track.  The sound literally rumbles from all the speakers and that sub-woofer is going to rattle all the windows, presenting a very immersive aural environment.  Somehow, the dialogue always remains clear, too.  A word of caution - this is a LOUD audio track (think U-571), and unless you want a call from the neighbors, it would be best to dial down the volume a bit while watching the film!

Features ***

The first commentary track is by director Len Wiseman and his screenwriters, Dan McBride and Kevin Grevioux (who actually plays a werewolf in the film).  They provide the usual casual banter about the film, although Grevioux's impossibly deep baritone voice renders his comments virtually impossible to understand.  If subwoofers could talk, they would probably sound just like Grevioux!

The second commentary is a technical track.  As might be expected, there is a lot of discussion about the special effects and the impressive sound design that went into creating the dark graphic novel mood of Underworld (which cost only around $23 million but looks exceedingly more expensive).

The Making of Underworld is a 13-minute featurette that shows a bit of everything.  It does tend to give away too many plot twists, so it is best viewed after watching the film first.  We also see a glimpse of the creation of the werewolves themselves in this featurette.

For a better look at the lycans, try the 12-minute Creature Effects featurette instead.  While it also contains some of the vampire effects, the best portions of this featurette examine the creation and modeling of the human/animatronic werewolf costumes (surprisingly few computer graphics effects were used for the film, other than the usual digital removal of wires).  The costumes really do look fantastic and support Wiseman's contention that with the latest technology, the classic man-in-a-rubber-suit style is still superior to anything that computers can achieve.

Stunts offers 12 minutes of rehearsal and production footage for the many stunts and wire-works effects in the film.  This featurette focuses primarily on Kate Beckinsale's stunts and her rehearsals, however there are a few other nifty secrets revealed.  For instance, the film has an impressive tracking shot in which a werewolf is shown out-racing and catching a speeding car.  This was done entirely in-camera without CGI effects; find out how they accomplished this effect in this featurette!

The last featurette is Sights and Sounds, with 9 minutes of narration-free footage of Underworld during the production.  It looks like a series of home movies from the production edited together, with a lot of between-takes mugging for the camera, too.

You can figure out that Underworld is targeting the undead horror film fan just by the selection of trailers offered on this disc.  Besides from the Underworld trailer, there are also peeks at The Forsaken, John Carpenter's Vampires and Vampires Los Muertos, Resident Evil, and lastly a very cool trailer for Resident Evil 2: Apocalypse.

Strangely, additional special features can be accessed only from this trailer section, not the actual special features option on the main menu screen (and so are easy to miss).  These additional features include two TV spots for Underworld and a loud and obnoxious music video ("Worms of the Earth") by Finch.  The best feature here is a 6-minute storyboard comparison sequence for several scenes in the film; it does give away some plot secrets, so again, it is better to watch the movie first, then this.

Summary:

Underworld may be somewhat derivative and not highly original, but it doesn't aim to be anything more than a straight-forward, popcorn film.  As such, it is fun and ultra-cool and certainly delivers all the excitement, chills, and thrills that one expects.  If you like the (first) Matrix film or any super-hero film in general, give Underworld a spin!