Underworld (2003) Movie Review

Post-“Blade” (and its even more influential sequel) vampire movies have gone the way of Asian horror films. Despite all the innovations of the genre up to this point, every film about vampires have been carbon copies of the Wesley Snipe films, just as every Asian horror film that’s come out in recent years have been, in one fashion or another, clones of the “The Ring”. Not that this is completely bad. Even as a purely derivative Asian horror clone, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Kairo” still managed to be effective. The same is true of the Pang brothers’ “The Eye”.

Unfortunately the same can’t be said for Len Wiseman’s “Underworld”, about a neverending blood feud between vampires and werewolves. Leading the vampires is snotty Kraven (Shane Brolly), who is left in charge of the vampire clans while elder vampire Viktor (Bill Nighy) sleeps in some sort of self-induced coma. Kraven’s main opponent is Lucian (Michael Sheen), the leader of the werewolves. In short, the vampires are upscale snobs in tight black leather, living in lavish mansions, while the werewolves are homeless punks scratching out a meager existence in the city’s underground catacombs.

“Underworld” takes place in an unnamed city that is forever encumbered by darkness, rain-slick cobblestone roads, and populated by — well, actually, we see so few civilians after the 10-minute mark that I’m not even sure if normal people live in this city! It’s here that “death dealer” Selene (Kate Beckinsale), a vampire, hunts the werewolves, who she blames for the massacre of her family many centuries ago. Originally turned by Viktor into a vampire, Selene has dedicated her life to killing the furry dogs. But as Selene narrates, things change when she runs across human Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman, “Dark Blue”), who the werewolves are also after.

I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that “Underworld” was shot in the same Eastern European city as “Blade 2”, because both films look like they could easily exist in the same universe. And much like Alex Proyas’ “Dark City”, or his earlier “The Crow”, the entire movie is mired in night, which makes for a rather depressing viewing, especially since so little seems to be taking place onscreen. Oh sure, first-time director Len Wiseman has achieved what he aimed for: the gothic, neverending night of what it means to be a vampire or a werewolf. But even if the whole movie looks intriguing, that still doesn’t mean it’s a pleasant experience to sit through. Couldn’t there be a brief interlude to break the monotony of the monochrome cinematography? A ray of sunlight? Something? Anyone? I guess not.

For the men in the audience, the main draw of “Underworld” has to be seeing British import Kate Beckinsale (“Pearl Harbor”) encased in a skin-tight black leather outfit throughout the film. Who knew the lovely Ms. Beckinsale, wean on British period films and Indie roles, could pull off such a physically demanding character and make it look so bloody sexy? But while Beckinsale and her co-stars entertain when things are blowing up, people are getting shot, and guns are going off, the film falters badly when it opens its mouth. The script by Wiseman and his co-writers are downright silly, especially whenever the movie returns to the vampire’s mansion, which feels more like one of those generic high schools in those generic teen movies.

To wit: the relationship between the eternally exasperated Kraven, the kick-ass Selene, and the nosy Erika (Sophia Myles) reeks of the sort of childish screenwriting one finds in generic teen movies about teen crushes. These people have been alive for centuries, fighting werewolves for survival, and they all act like jealous teenagers? It’s all rather out of place, especially whenever Kraven runs around putting the moves on the disinterested Selene. I expected Kraven to ask Selene to the prom, and for Erika to have a bucket of pig’s blood waiting when the popular vampires elect Selene homecoming queen at the Big Dance. Really, it’s that silly.

Compared to the rampant insanity of “Blade 2”, “Underworld” is more than a bit underwhelming, I’m afraid. After an opening battle between Selene and the werewolves in the subway, the movie pretty much breaks down into a series of talking, lengthy exposition, and kiddie jealousy subplots in the high school — er, I mean, vampire mansion.

The only character that makes any real impact is Michael Sheen’s Lucian, whose character takes on a surprisingly sympathetic turn. As it turns out, the werewolves aren’t all bad, even if they have a tendency to bite chunks out of people’s necks. Then again, if you have gun-toting vampires always stalking you, you’d be a bit peeved, too. In fact, while the werewolves can change shape, the vampires don’t actually do anything that could be considered “vampire-like”. They don’t fly, turn into bats, and never seem to use their teeth for much of anything. In fact, their only real “power” seems to be living an awfully long time.

FYI: Perhaps the more interesting story isn’t the movie itself, but the story taking place behind the camera. For the uninitiated, Beckinsale was married to co-star Michael Sheen during the production of “Underworld”, but the two have since split up and Beckinsale is now engaged to director Len Wiseman! Yes, I kid you not. It makes one wonder what must have taken place on the set, and who knew what, and when they knew what they may or may not have known. This is the type of real-life storyline that just blows away the movie. It doesn’t hurt that “Underworld” is mostly an underachievement (har har) to begin with.

Len Wiseman (director) / Kevin Grevioux, Len Wiseman, Danny McBride (screenplay)
CAST: Kate Beckinsale …. Selene
Scott Speedman …. Michael Corvin
Michael Sheen …. Lucian
Shane Brolly …. Kraven
Bill Nighy …. Viktor

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