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Underworld
Tonight's Feature Presentation

UNDERWORLD (2003)

Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Bill Nighy, Michael Sheen, Shane Brolly, Kevin Grevioux

Written By: Danny McBride (also story), Len Wiseman (story), Kevin Grevioux (story) Directed By: Len Wiseman

The Short Version

Underworld is a very slick, very stylish take on the idea of vampires vs. werewolves.

It’s also very well paced, with a good story and fun, guns-blazing action.

It’s so stylish and well paced you may not even notice that the vampires are only barely vampirish.

Speaking of stylish: Kate Beckinsale in tight shiny black asskicking gear.  ‘Nuf said.

If you like new school vamps and/or werewolves, Underworld is definitely worth your while.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

MOZZERELLA MARINARA.

The ultimate in snack cheese: yeah, it’s stuff you’ve tasted before, but it’s got such tasty zing served up like this that originality doesn’t matter.


Pairs Well With...

VAMPIRE VINEYARDS PINOT NOIR.

Why yes, it is a real winery.  Whether or not you actually turn from drinking this yummy pinot noir is for you to find out.

“Lycans are allergic to silver.  We have to get the bullets out quickly, or they end up dying on us during questioning.”

“What happens to them afterward?”

“We put the bullets back in.”


Let’s start with a little bit of film history.  Back in 1941, someone decided that Lon Chaney, Jr. was just so darn likable that the title monster of The Wolf Man just couldn’t be pure evil like, say, Dracula.  Therefore, they wrote the character of Larry Talbot as sympathetic for that film, and thus when Universal started doing its mash-ups later on, the Wolf Man was the hero and Dracula was the villain.  That, I’m pretty sure, is where the war between vampires and werewolves first took shape in popular culture (because there’s no real basis for it in folklore).

My, how the seed of that concept has grown.

Nowadays, the vamp/werewolf conflict seems to be centered around the concept of class struggle, with the vampires representing the cold aristocrats and the werewolves representing the hardscrabble peasants and working classes.  That’s where Underworld picks up, and as far as modern monster movies are concerned, its take has become reasonably definitive.  (Though some folks involved with the World of Darkness RPG may disagree with just how innovative that take was at the time, but that reportedly got settled out of court.)

Let’s step into the Underworld now, shall we?

We begin in a modern city that never quite gets a name, but it’s really a version of Budapest that’s loaded up with English speakers.  Perched up a rooftop like a gargoyle is Selene (Kate Beckinsale, Whiteout).  She is a vampire, but more than that, she is a Death Dealer.  What this means is that she is an executioner in the centuries-long war between vampires and werewolves, which are themselves properly referred to as Lycans.  The vampires have had the upper hand for the past several centuries, thanks to the death of the Lycan leader, Lucian (Michael Sheen, Tron: Legacy), at the hands of a young vampire upstart named Kraven (Shane Brolly, Impostor), but while some are content to move on to the life of soft aristocrats, Selene maintains her vigilance.  And tonight, she spots a heavy prize: the Lycan lieutenant, Raze (Kevin Grevioux, Planet of the Apes).

As she follows him into the city’s subway tunnels, however, something unusual happens: the Lycans break out into open combat right there in public.  Given that both races have chosen to hide from humans for centuries, Selene finds this highly unnerving to say the least.  She is even more unnerved when during the course of the battle she learns that the Lycans have developed a radioactive bullet that simulates the effect of sunlight on impact to kill vampires, and as she tries to make her escape, she also becomes certain that the Lycans are massing for a large scale attack, something that hasn’t happened since the death of Lucian.

When she tries to tell the vampires’ acting leader, Kraven, of her suspicions, he dismisses her out of hand, but Selene won’t give up so easily.  Instead, she looks to pursue yet another lead, for the other thing she observed in the subway was that Raze seemed to be following a human named Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman, xXx: State of the Union)…

Underworld is for vampires and werewolves what Resident Evil was for zombies: a slick, stylish modernization of an old genre with an ass kicking lady in the lead.  It’s not a perfect update, but frankly, it’s so stylish and well-polished that you’re unlikely to care about the flaws.  Besides, even if you do decide to care, the flaws are outweighed by the good stuff anyway.  With that and mind, here are some dos and don’ts to consider while you’re navigating the slickness that is Underworld…

First things first, because I know the audience as well as the casting people did: do look at Underworld as the catalyst for a significant portion of the movie watching population having developed a spontaneous crush on Kate Beckinsale.  (You didn’t think it was Pearl Harbor, did you?)  Yes, she looks damn good in that tight black costume with all the right accents, and she looks damn good in action, too.  And as with her Resident Evil counterpart, Milla Jovovich, Beckinsale’s looks, however stunning, take a back seat to her acting skills here.  Let there be no doubt that she is a formidable lead.

Don’t hold out any hope for those crushes, by the way; also like Milla Jovovich did after Resident Evil, Beckinsale ended up marrying the director here, though she was quicker about it.

Don’t expect the guy playing Lucian to be happy about that; when filming started, they were the couple.  Can you say ‘awkward’?

Don’t look for the sun to appear; save for one sepia-toned flashback involving a vampire execution, you will never see it.

Do instead look for a blue-tinted darkness throughout Underworld that very nicely notches up the visual side of the atmosphere.

Do also listen for excellently chosen music to take care of the aural side of the atmosphere, both in terms of score and in terms of the metal-driven soundtrack, which is perfect for the modern gothic violence that is the vampire/Lycan war.

Speaking of, do enjoy the scene wherein some Lycan guards demonstrate the classiest way to deal with a werewolf starting to transform in the back seat of your car: crank up the stereo so you don’t have to listen to him scream.

And while we’re on the subject of said transformation, don’t expect Underworld to be loaded up with awful CGI monsters.  The visual and creature effects teams were very conscious of trying to steer away from CGI whenever possible, and the results really pay off.  The multistory jumps you see are camera tricks, and the werewolves are actual costumes.  (CGI is only used for the werewolves during the transformation sequences, which is fair enough, since these transformations tend to occur mid-combat, and when the transformation is done, so is the computer’s job.)

But while the werewolves are definitely werewolf-y, don’t look for very vampish vampires.  Underworld plays more on the popularized concept of aristocratic vampire culture than it does on general folkloric vampirism for most everything other than the purpose of describing how they need to be killed.  During the entire film, the vampires bite only twice, and neither occurrence is an attack.  (One is foreplay, and the other is meant to save someone’s life by “infecting” him.)  Instead, these modern vampires prefer to fight with silver blades and silver bullet guns.

Do look for the crew of Underworld to have gotten creative with those guns, by the way.  The standard silver bullets get an upgrade to bullets that shatter on impact to crack open a liquid core of silver nitrate that gets into the Lycans’ bloodstreams for a much more likely kill.  On the flip side, the Lycans have developed a similar bullet (actually, they went first) that uses an irradiated liquid core that produces that same effect on vampire blood as sunlight does.  It’s interesting, well-considered stuff.  I like it.

Do expect the action sequences to kick ass every time.  Bullets fly, muscles ripple, and everyone’s in motion.  The chase rocks, the brawls are awesome, and the duels are deadly.  Slo-mo is a highlight here instead of a distraction, and doesn’t suffer from overuse as it does in most movies.  Whether it’s gunplay, claw play, or swordplay, the results are never disappointing.

Don’t worry that the action’s the only thing holding it all together.  Underworld is interesting enough that even when the action tapers off some during the second act, you’re quite well hooked and enjoying the whole plot aspect of things.  It’s got an actual story, you see, and there’s even some depth to it.  Not always a given with such films, but it happens to be true of this one.

Do look for great, memorable performances from Kate Beckinsale, Michael Sheen, and Bill Nighy (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest).  On the flip side, don’t look for any range whatsoever out of Shane Brolly; his Kraven is a one-trick pony (that trick is “angry, spoiled prick,” by the way), but then again, that’s all he really needs to be.

Speaking of Bill Nighy, do check out the behind the scenes documentaries if you copy of Underworld has them.  Nighy does an in-costume “dating service video” for his vampire lord character of Viktor that is an absolute scream.

Don’t spend too much time worrying about Scott Speedman.  While he’s a step above being costume filler, the fact is that he’s just not given a whole hell of a lot to do until the final act of the film aside from play the part of the confused male version of the damsel in distress.  He does what he needs to, and it’s enough.

Do expect the “Romeo & Juliet” thing; let’s face it, you knew it would happen.

Don’t worry if you look at Speedman’s character during the final battle and start thinking less about werewolves or vampires than you do about the Incredible Hulk.  I’ve thought the same thing every time, even after what’s got to be my seventh or eighth viewing.

Don’t look at Kevin Grevioux and think they just hunted for the biggest dude with the deepest voice they could find to play Raze; he’s actually one of the guys who came up with the story for Underworld in the first place.  He was especially keen on the science of modernizing the old gothic creatures (which, really, is to be expected from a guy with a Masters’ in Genetic Engineering).  Rock on, sir.

If you enjoy vampire or werewolf movies at all, don’t think of passing Underworld by.  It’s damn good even if it isn’t by any means perfect, and is some of the best modern stuff you’re going to see that pits the two classic monsters against each other.  Indeed, as least for the first three films, the whole series has been good so far, so you might as well start with the beginning.

Bottom line, it’s worth your time to visit the Underworld.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, January, 2012


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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