Underworld (United States/Germany/Hungary/United Kingdom, 2003)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Vampire movies aren't what they used to be. Gone are the days when a cape, fangs, a cocked eyebrow, and a menacing glare were enough. By today's standards, those things are quaint. Underworld, from first time director Len Wiseman, is an example of a vampire movie for the new century - stylish, gothic, gory, and loud. The plot may not be irrelevant (in fact, this movie requires too much exposition to clarify the situation), but character development is. And, as a bonus, not only do we have vampires, but werewolves as well. In fact, they're at war with each other, and have been for about 1000 years. You would think that even with a pathetically slow kill rate, they would have wiped each other out by now.

Underworld starts out with a chaotic mess of an action sequence that seems to go on forever. Things eventually settle down and we learn that our hero is a vampire by the name of Selene (Kate Beckinsale), who has devoted her unlife to destroying lycanthropes. Then Selene stumbles upon a conspiracy between the vampire leader, Kraven (Shane Brolly), and the werewolf leader, Lucian (Michael Sheen), that involves a human named Michael (Scott Speedman), who is due to show his true nature at the next full moon. Fearing that Kraven's actions may place the vampires in jeopardy, Selene does the unthinkable - bypassing protocol, she awakens the ancient vampire noble, Viktor (Bill Nighy), from a mummified coma, so he can stop Kraven.

The middle portions of Underworld involve characters doing a lot of talking, plotting, and running through benighted, rain-soaked streets. Wherever this is taking place, the sun never makes an appearance. There are also plenty of flashbacks, which are used to fill in the backstory of how the vampire/werewolf war got started in the first place. And there's a romance between Selene and Michael, which is forbidden. However, they aren't Romeo and Juliet. To begin with, there's no balcony scene.

Style over substance seems to be Wiseman's mantra. The entire movie is filmed in a metallic monochrome that makes things appear depressingly dreary. The look is a combination of Blade and The Crow. The soundtrack features some jarring heavy metal music, something that is becoming popular with "hip" movies these days. Nothing like numbing the mind by assaulting the ears, I suppose. Still, the movie looks sufficiently offbeat to be interesting, although the muted colors and lack of anything resembling bright light becomes a little wearisome before the proceedings are over.

The film stars Kate Beckinsale, but it doesn't require much in the way of acting from her. All she has to do is look dangerous and sexy in a skintight leather suit (more Irma Vep than Catwoman) and say her lines without giggling at the silliness of some of the things screenwriter Danny McBride has written. For the most part, Beckinsale pulls it off, although there are a few scenes when she looks like one of the animated synthespians from Final Fantasy. Scott Speedman doesn't need to do anything more than exude a primal wildness, which he succeeds at. And everyone else has to appear sinister, deranged, or maniacal. Again, not much of a stretch.

Had Underworld been shorter, it would have been more fun. As it is, there are dead stretches in the middle where it seems to be spinning its wheels. The big battle at the end is fun, although I felt cheated by the final scene, which promises a sequel. Fans of Blade and other gloomy, bloodthirsty action movies will probably be entertained. Underworld captured my attention sporadically, but not consistently.

Underworld (United States/Germany/Hungary/United Kingdom, 2003)

Director: Len Wiseman
Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Shane Brolly, Michael Sheen, Bill Nighy
Screenplay: Danny McBride
Cinematography: Tony Pierce-Roberts
Music: Paul Haslinger
U.S. Distributor: Screen Gems
Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 2003-09-19
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1