Friday, September 26, 2003

Underworld / ***1/2 (2003)

Len Wiseman's "Underworld" launches with a premise that is easily one of the most inspired concerning vampires and werewolves since the creatures themselves first appeared on the big screen. In the murkiest corners of a shadowed gothic metropolis, the familiar horror film adversaries are driven not by bloodlust, but by their own personal struggle to endure. For a thousand years, the movie's heroine tells us in the opening shot, both the vampires and the werewolves (referred to as "Lycans" through most of the picture) have been in a heated war with each other, one that reached catastrophic proportions for the werewolves at one point when one of their most important leaders was killed by the opposition. Thus, in a state of fragmentation, the Lycans scattered into the city as the vampires assumed control of the highest point in the food chain, and though their control has gone fairly unchallenged since the days when the werewolf society was crippled, fear of a resistance persists and the vampires are encouraged to destroy every last breathing creature they can find.

As the movie opens, we meet Selene (Kate Beckinsale), a vampire who scouts the city streets searching for her prey. When she and her comrades corner a couple of Lycans in a subway station, a bloodbath of epic proportions ensues, guns set ablaze by either side with one simple goal in mind for both: to ensure the opponents are killed before they are. Whatever the outcome could be, however, is a secondary concern for Selene when she realizes that the Lycans were actually in that station in the first place pursuing a human. Her mind is immediately filled with questions—some of which she shares with her superior Kraven (Shane Brolly), who seems rather uninterested in anything she has to say—and when she decides to go in pursuit of the answers, she comes face to face with the man himself, a hospital worker named Michael (Scott Speedman) whom she inevitably has to protect when the Lycans return to reclaim the prize they initially lost.

The movie is partly a puzzle game and partly an investigation into moral dilemma, but almost all of it dwells in the spirit of the purest summer action pictures. A triumph on a visual and technical scale, "Underworld" is the kind of fun, ambitious, chaotic and exhilarating adventure that never got to open during the year's onslaught of summer releases: an adventure that doesn't just go to great places, but discovers new ones along the way. No matter where the eye chooses to focus, the celluloid is always steeped in rich textures, dark and gothic ones with an element of menace that sometimes makes mere pieces of architecture seem like they could reach out and snatch up someone if they wanted to. The characters, furthermore, emulate that sentiment through their behavior, as they plod their way through the environments with one eye always looking behind corners and in shadows for the next inevitable ambush. They aren't people who easily get caught into predicaments, mind you, but their mere existence in this dangerous world fills them with insecurity, enough to even hamper their physical and mental efforts when major story events begin to unfold. No one is invulnerable to the city's hidden cruelty.

In terms of basic story itself, "Underworld" has been criticized immensely for the way it undertakes the material ("all ideas and no payoff," one such colleague wrote recently). Is any of that criticism warranted? A little, perhaps, but surely not to the extreme level that the movie has so far been subject to. In fact, what we actually have here is a fascinating concept guided by a strong sense of character development and plot movement, topped off in the end by a brave and challenging climax that, despite being bombarded with too many major story shocks, delivers most of what we initially hope for. It has gumption, it has energy, and it indeed has payoff. Furthermore, the story utilizes all of its characters for exactly what is demanded of them, and the actors who fill the roles do solid jobs in portraying people with slightly tainted views of the world around them. Speedman is particularly effective as the confused human caught between the brewing feuds of the city's most dangerous creatures, and Beckinsale is reserved but slick as Selene, the vampire woman who comes to realize that even some lines have to be crossed in order to see the bigger picture.

Watching "Underworld" in all its illuminating excellence, I was amazed at how such a new filmmaker like Len Wiseman could show so much dedication to his story, his characters and their relationships without blowing the idea all out of proportion. A common flaw with many of today's best movie ideas, especially for relatively amateur directors, is that few people know how to take an ambitious idea and expand it into a plausible feature-length plot; more often than not, their efforts are more overly ambitious than the concept itself. Wiseman, thankfully, seems to have found the right note with this premise, and the script by Danny McBride provides the foundation for what turns out to be one of the most enjoyable action flicks of the past year. Who would've thought that vampires and werewolves could hold our interest like this ever again, anyway?

Written by DAVID KEYES

Cast & Crew info:
Kate Beckinsale: Selene
Scott Speedman: Michael Corvin
Shane Brolly: Kraven
Michael Sheen: Lucian
Bill Nighy: Viktor
Erwin Leder: Singe
Sophia Myles: Erika

Produced by Robert Bernacchi, Kevin Grevioux, Gary Lucchesi, Danny McBride, James McQuaide, Tom Rosenberg, Kornél Sipos, Skip Williamson, Richard S. Wright; Directed by Len Wiseman; Screenwritten by Danny McBride

Action/Fantasy (US); Rated R for strong violence/gore and some language; Running Time - 121 Minutes

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