She doesn't exactly fly. But she can fall to the ground from six stories and
land like a cat. She's a vampire. She's Kate Beckinsale, a heretofore
semi-hidden talent getting her chance at a conspicuous role in a
super-charged blockbuster with lots of gore, regenerative powers and a
dark, ancient history. This is "Underworld."
Mention vampires and werewolves and the image is exploitative horror for
committed fans of the genre. Bring them together in the same movie and you
have an image of Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney, or a film for
phantasmagoria-fest. But this is considerably more than that in terms of
character depth and sophistication.
It supposes that these are two races and that they have been in a
centuries-long blood feud that is at once secret and subject to strict rules
which both sides must obey for self-preservation. He or she who goes against
the rules is subject to the kind of death only an immortal can suffer.
Selene (Kate Beckinsale) is a vampire warrior who was specially selected by
the powerful (some would say, most powerful) Viktor (Bill
Nighy), a mighty leader of his race who sleeps through a hibernation
determined by the rules of this ancient war for supremacy. Back when it
began, according to this legend, werewolves (here called Lycans)
were the servants of the vampires. But, now, during Viktor's long absence,
they have grown powerful and unruly and driven by their appetite for flesh.
Selene discovers a plot aimed at kidnapping a human for reasons that are, at
first, a mystery.
The human target of the Lycans is Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman), a surgeon,
who is completely unaware of the special interest being shown in him. As a
team of Lycans closes in on him, Selene is there with her team's assistance
and heads off the capture with overwhelming firepower on both sides,
demonstrating the powers and the immortal attributes of the combatants. The
loss of Michael to the Lycans in this clash serves to further defeat the blood
experiments that the Lycans have been performing. Lucian, the arisen Lycan
leader, demands that they try again.
When Selene expresses her fears about the Lycan threat to Kraven (Shane
Brolly), the vampire leader, she's rebuffed and ridiculed. She continues her
investigation on her own and discovers that Lucian (Michael Sheen) an arch
enemy thought dead, is still alive and that he's behind the Lycans' attempts
to capture Michael. She learns that Michael's blood is required in order to
cross breed the genetic inheritance of both tribes to create a super-immortal
who would be superior to any of them and thereby gain dominance to win the
She also realizes that, in her concentration on Michael and on the danger to
his mortal life, she's developed an emotional bond, once more defying the
boundaries but resting on the hallowed ground of the "Romeo and Juliet"
theme. Needing a powerful ally, she prematurely awakens Viktor, believing
him to have the power to quell the enemy, save Michael and restore a just
future for her clan. But, though he loves his little "death dealer" Seline,
the leader of the clan can't go down the route she romantically envisions.
The dark imagery of the movie is illuminated by the classically beautiful
face of the lead, Beckinsale ("Laurel Canyon"). She's as much vamp as
vampire, and that she's clad in tight shiny leather doesn't at all hurt her
stylish contribution to the cachet of the science-fiction thriller. In fact,
the entire fantasy rests on it, and on her confidence as an action heroine.
The necessary qualities are present with dynamic conviction as she gets down
with the gunplay and takes her place besides Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle
(Catwoman) in "Batman Returns" (similarity of character names a coincidence?
-- we doubt it) and Carrie-Anne Moss as Trinity in "The Matrix" series.
Beckinsale is swift on the trigger as she mows down the pop up werewolves
bouncing off the walls like so many training park popup targets. On the
physical side, the low-key lighting affords continuous study of her exquisite
facial features, an examination from which I never tired.
The choice of Scott Speedman as Michael will be of most interest to fans of
his ended series, "Felicity" in which he played opposite Keri Russell.
Strong and handsome, he conveys a poet's emotional sensitivity which
sometimes comes out as indecision. Not, perhaps a comfortable quality in a
leading man, but nicely attractive nontheless and, with this exposure,
predictive of a bright future on the feature film side.
Bill Nighy is the ultimate image of the evil vampire and serves this palette
of underworld creatures well.
The grace shown in the athletic abilities of the cast is consistent and at a
high level, bespeaking much training and inherent athleticism. The design of
the werewolves and the morphs are of original caliber, bringing these ancient
concepts up to date. The glowing gun ammunition is another nice detail for
the imagination that glows behind this latest entrant in the genre.
The prevailing darkness and bare detail in the shadows is the studiously
controlled work of cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts, BSC ("Disclosure",
"Howards End"). First-time director Len Wiseman shows taste for the material
and preserves qualities in his monsters to whom some of us mortals will be
willing to relate. At 121 minutes his film is 20-30 minutes too long, but if
you're one who relates to the genre with all its cliches, you'll find his
update worth seeing.
~~ Jules Brenner