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Werewolves of London, Paris, Munich...

 

Underworld

Len Wiseman, USA / UK, 2003

Rating: 2.8

 

 

Posted: September 22, 2003

By The Gentleman (exclusive to Shaking Through)

The basic premise and background of the vampires-vs.-werewolves flick Underworld should be familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of the popular role-playing games Vampire: The Masquerade and Werewolf: The Apocalypse. (More than familiar, perhaps, given that the gaming company White Wolf and horror writer Nancy A. Collins have sued the makers of the film for multiple copyright infringements.) But to the layman, the film's plot and backstory unfold at a frustratingly laborious pace (despite the sleek rapid-fire shoot-out that opens it). In fact, key details -- mainly, that vampires and werewolves (here referred to as "Lycans") exist in well-organized, hierarchical clans and "houses" -- aren't so much established as eventually inferred by the audience, the large majority of which is undoubtedly more familiar with the user-friendly milieus of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and other, more traditional franchises. In other words, be forewarned: This isn't your father's vampire (or werewolf) movie.

What it is, as it happens, is a terribly style-conscious, tricked-up Euro-Goth take on Romeo and Juliet -- that is, if Juliet were a gun-toting vampire with more balls than the Baltimore Ravens, and Romeo were a good-looking cipher of a medical student whose bloodline makes him a key figure in an eternal struggle between...well, you know. The blood-sucking hottie in question is Selene, a leather-clad vampire assassin (played with one-note earnestness by Kate Beckinsale, apparently thirsty for more of a sellout than Pearl Harbor could deliver). Selene is a Death-Dealer, part of a cadre of hunter-killer vampires whose sole mission is to seek out and destroy werewo -- sorry, Lycans -- by shooting them full of silver bullets. (Spoiler Alert: If you want to remain surprised, stop reading here. -- The Editor.)

Selene belongs to a decadent "house" of vampires who loll about in a European mansion, where they apparently have little more to do than admire each other's supernatural cheekbones and plot against each other. The house is currently ruled by the aptly named Kraven (Shane Brolly), who resembles an unsettling cross between Trent Reznor and Josh Groban. Kraven's got designs on the terminally uninterested Selene; turns out he's also got his eye on consolidating his power base by engaging in a conspiracy with Lucian (Michael Sheen), the leader of the Lycans, thought long dead at Kraven's hands. Said conspiracy involves tracking down a direct descendant of the very first Lycan, in order to usher in a race of vampire-Lycan hybrids. (Exactly what purpose this will serve is never made clear, save that it will somehow presumably end the centuries-long war between the two camps.)

That direct descendant is the aforementioned med student, Michael (Felicity's Scott Speedman, with little to do but react to the craziness around him). Selene encounters a Lycan squad gunning for Michael early on, and just can't stop until she finds out why her eternal foes are so interested in him. (Dear, dear Selene: Felicity viewers spent years wondering much the same thing.) And although good old Michael displays all the charisma of baked ziti, wouldn't you know it? Despite her better instincts and vampire law, not to mention any evident onscreen chemistry, the plot dictates that she find herself attracted to the guy. Soon, Kraven and Lucian are moving their plan into high gear, and Selene finds herself forced to choose between her own kind (especially the vampire Elder Viktor, whom she awakens from hibernation a century before he's due -- don't ask) and a hunky human with Lycan in his genes. No fair guessing which side she eventually chooses.

For all its murky storytelling style, Underworld navigates its intricate plot twists with a fair degree of cohesiveness. Of course, that's to be expected in a plot-heavy film like this, where leather pants and doe eyes pass for characterization. Underworld is a thriller, and a numbingly by-the-numbers one at that. Which is all well and good, except that it lacks for any real thrills. The war between vampires and Lycans doesn't seem to involve or imperil humankind in any way, so there's little reason for human audience members to invest much emotion in the outcome of this hermetically sealed blood feud.

It certainly doesn't help matters that the only human in sight is the guy from Felicity, who's more of a plot device than a character (he's bitten by Lucian fairly early on anyway, so he's shuffled over to the Lycan column pretty quickly). If only screenwriter Danny McBride and first-time director Len Wiseman had bothered to inject a human element anywhere in all the melee -- say, if Lycans were mankind's guardians against the bloodsucking fiends, or the two factions were fighting over humans as their food supply -- perhaps the endless gunfights and supernatural face-offs would count toward something. But no; the filmmakers go out of their way to show us that vampires don't even feed on humans these days, relying on animals and the synthetic blood manufactured by one of their holding companies. As it is, Selene (and make no mistake, it's Selene, not Ben -- I mean Michael -- with whom we're meant to sympathize) fights for -- what? The welfare of vampires? The love of a cardboard-stiff man-beast? What's in it for us?

Basically, lots of nifty-looking action. The Lycan transformations are impressive, as are the ultra-violet bullets (daylight in a shell casing) the Lycans use against their foes, and the silver nitrate bullets the vampires develop in retaliation. But that action borrows perhaps a bit too heavily from the leather-bullets-and-aerodynamic-stunts aesthetic of The Matrix. And action only counts for so much, especially when rendered in a distracting, washed-out blue sheen that emphasizes the film's oh-so-European monotony of tone of pacing. There's an intriguing story (plagiarized or not) buried beneath Underworld's Byzantine machinations, acted out with adroit B-movie aplomb. Too bad the end result proves to be so, well, bloodless.

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