It’s understandable why Len Wiseman’s “Underworld: Evolution”, the sequel to his 2003 sleeper hit “Underworld”, didn’t perform well with mainstream critics, even though it did make a tidy profit with the general public. The film is, simply put, uninteresting material for those who wallow in New York Times editorials and New Yorker art pieces, but is a fantastic piece of genre filmmaking for those seeking the answer to the age-old question: “What kind of wonderful creatures and action set pieces can $50 million buy”? With “Evolution”, Wiseman has replied, “It can buy lots of really cool looking creature effects, action scenes, and Kate Beckinsale looking hotter than ever in tight black leather.” Oh my.
Picking up right after the events of “Underworld”, “Evolution” continues with vampire death dealer Selene (Kate Beckinsale) fleeing into the countryside with Michael (Scott Speedman), the werewolf hybrid she was supposed to kill in the first film, but has since become smitten with, and vice versa. Now something of a couple, the mismatched duo is being hunted by the vampire clan that Selene betrayed, but those bloodsuckers have other problems on their hands. Namely Marcus (Tony Curran), the very first vampire, who has wakened and now wants to know where his brother, William, is being imprisoned.
Quick spoiler: William is not just a werewolf, but the first werewolf, and back in the day, he and Marcus were tearing it up something awful. And oh yeah, Marcus has developed a God complex, and there’s a shadowy commando group looking to put him down for good. Or are they? And who is the old guy running them?
Quite simply, if you came into “Evolution” looking for coherent storytelling or plausible story arcs, you won’t find them here. “Evolution” is pure 90 minutes of really cool action sequences jam packed with werewolf on vampire battles, vampire on vampire ass kicking, and just to spice things up, werewolf on werewolf mayhem. Oh sure, there are some semblance of a story, but it’s all background noise in service of watching Kate Beckinsale continue to wow with her womanly body, curves and all; and for the women in the audience, Scott Speedman’s buff bod is constantly shedding its shirts.
“Underworld: Evolution” is a feast for the eyes, and what makes it work is the unmistakable vibe that it really has no further ambition other than to be one entertaining piece of genre filmmaking. Co-written and directed by Len Wiseman (aka Mr. Kate Beckinsale), the sequel is a vast improvement over the original, which was oftentimes encumbered by poor pacing, a languid middle, and a bloated running time that made the film seem unbearably long. Clocking in at a breezy and action-packed 90 minutes, “Evolution” makes for a perfect conclusion to the story, even though the end would seem to indicate room not only for more “Underworld” black leather goodness, but perhaps a TV series or two. Certainly the world created in the series is worth exploring further, especially in light of the two main character’s surprising evolutions (hence the title, one supposes).
But it’s the action set pieces that are the thing, and “Evolution” certainly delivers that entire $50 million dollar budget it was given. The special effects don’t always work as well as they should, and early on the werewolf attacks are a tad too obviously CGI, but that might be the fault of gravity, as it seems impossible for a stuntman dressed in a werewolf outfit to go leaping around the screen. The vampire effects work much better, providing some seamless CGI-enhanced battles between a winged Marcus and Selene, as well as a winged Marcus versus just about everyone else in the movie. Marcus may have been kept asleep for many centuries against his wishes and certainly has a good case for griping, but really, the guy needs to lighten up a bit.
Perhaps a direct casualty of “Evolution’s” short running time is the almost complete lack of character arc for Speedman’s Michael. Granted, the series has always been sold on the sex appeal of leading actress Kate Beckinsale, but it’s nevertheless shameful how little attention the Michael character gets. For the most part poor Speedman is relegated to playing background boyfriend, transforming into an uber werewolf and whupping ass in service of his vampire girlfriend whenever the need arises (which it does often). But maybe Speedman didn’t make such a big ado about all that absent character stuff because he gets to engage in a rather visually enticing sex scene with Beckinsale, a sequence made all the more curious because Beckinsale’s husband is the one behind the camera. Methinks Mr. Beckinsale likes to watch…
“Evolution” was obviously made for loyal fans of the original, as well as aficionados of the genre. Wiseman proves to have a very good eye for what works when it comes to creature action, and the film’s practical effects, including some brilliant creature make-up, will definitely be appearing on someone’s highlight reel. To be sure, the story isn’t much to crow about, even though we learn the origins of the vampires and werewolves. When all is said and done, your opinion of the film will be based on your opinion of the genre. If you like this stuff, you’ll get a major kick out of “Evolution”, which is so obviously the product of a lot of millions and a director’s enthusiasm for his subject matter. And if you’re not so into this stuff, then it’s your fault for watching it in the first place, and ignorance is no excuse.
Len Wiseman (director) / Len Wiseman, Kevin Grevioux, Danny McBride (screenplay)
CAST: Kate Beckinsale …. Selene
Scott Speedman …. Michael Corvin
Tony Curran …. Marcus
Derek Jacobi …. Alexander Corvinus
Bill Nighy …. Viktor
Steven Mackintosh …. Tanis