2/4, 2000s, Action, Fantasy, Len Wiseman, Review

Underworld

Underworld (2003) - IMDb

#2 in my ranking of the Underworld franchise.

This vampire and werewolf monster mashup takes itself too seriously for how silly it becomes. The performances are all over the place and the lore is overcomplicated. However, I do have a soft spot for it. Len Wiseman has a strong eye and a strong sense of action mechanics, so even if the script isn’t up to the task, there’s still a fair amount to enjoy. Oh, and Bill Nighy demonstrates that he’s the best by acting the crap out of a silly costume and monster makeup.

There’s been a war between vampires and werewolves (ugh…lycans) for six hundred years ever since the lycan Lucian (Michael Sheen) was killed by Kraven (Shane Brolly). The fight continues into modern day vaguely Eastern European city where everyone speaks English all the time (Budapest, apparently). There Kate Beckinsale’s Seline is a Death Dealer, a vampire on the lookout for lycans to kill in their war that seems to be winding down. Until one night when she tracks a pair of lycans who are following Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman).

The opening of the film is rather cool, and something I can get into. There’s a voiceover from Beckinsale that explains everything (all of which we get later again, which tells me that this was added in post-production as a reaction to test screenings), but other than that it’s a blue-cool series of action beats as our introduction to the world. Vampires facing off against werewolves with guns and biting. Since the film isn’t really asking for emotional involvement from the audience, instead it’s a window into the new world that we’re about to wade into. See? There’s some intelligence to this film. Not a whole lot, but some, and that’s why I can’t actually dislike it.

The human is some kind of genetic key to the lycans who will be able to absorb the viruses from both vampires and lycans to create some kind of new race (an abomination, once vampire labels the idea) and bring justice to the vampires who subjugated them for centuries before trying to exterminate them. In the middle of this fray is Sheen as Lucian who does his best with the limited material he has. For all the issues this movie has, there are a handful of seriously talented actors at play, and Sheen is the first evidence of that. He imbues Lucian with a surprising amount of depth that the role doesn’t deserve, but Sheen is a classy guy and a quality actor, and he pulls it off.

The other end of this is Kraven’s Shane Brolly. This guy is awful. Like, I have no idea how he got through a single audition. He’s not just free from the burden of charisma, he’s actively bad. Every single line delivery is cringeworthy. And he’s, of course, written terribly. I mean, the guy’s name is Kraven, the actor’s hamming it up horribly, and the dialogue is all terrible. Yes, he’s going to end up being a bad guy. Might as well have just hung a neon sign around his neck announcing it, it’s that subtle. He has designs on Seline, but we all know that the story of his bravery to kill Lucian 600 years ago is going to be wrong even before we figure out who Lucian is.

Where the movie also struggles is all the intrigue. There’s something akin to a palace coup going on, and none of it is particularly interesting or well-explained. There are three elder vampires of a sort. Two are in hibernation, and one leads. How or why this entire system came about is completely unexplained or makes a whole lot of sense, but one rules for a hundred years, goes into hibernation, and another takes their place. At the moment, the vampires are ruled by Amelia with Marcus due to come up. Seline was turned into a vampire by Viktor, though, the third ruler due to rule after Marcus. There’s real potential here for the relationship between Viktor and Seline, but he ends up introduced too late, I think. Seline, in a desperate bid to get help, awakens Viktor at about the halfway point.

It feels like the emotional core of the film should have been the father/daughter relationship between Viktor and Seline. Instead, there are emotional threads going in every direction, from Kraven wanting Seline as his bride, to Seline and Michael falling for each other, to Lucian reflecting on the murder of his vampire wife which started the whole war, to even another female vampire’s desires for Kraven (must be the wooden acting). There needed to be a culling of these side characters and subplots at the script stage, bringing Viktor to the beginning, and probably just axing the whole hibernation of the elders thing.

Of course, the point is the action, and I like it. As I wrote before, Wiseman has a strong eye for action, and he provides fun views into the action beats that keep it all from feeling dull or incomprehensible. He varies it up as lycans change from their human form to their werewolf form to modify the fight, even giving Bill Nighy the kind of moment that sells his strength and awesomeness as he single handedly strangles a werewolf with relative ease. The action bits are where this film is at its best.

Oh, and Kate Beckinsale looks really good. It helps that she’s actually a perfectly fine actress and can deliver her dialogue with a modicum of conviction, which makes her scenes with Kraven kind of hilarious since Brolly is just the worst. Have I said that Brolly is hilariously bad? Because he’s hilariously bad.

So, this is a script that needed some work before the film went into production. As it stands, the movie’s fine. I haven’t seen it in years, and I ended up enjoying it more than I had expected. It’s not great. It’s not even really good, but it’s a decent way to spend 2 hours.

Rating: 2/4

6 thoughts on “Underworld”

  1. So… a few comments on Underworld.

    First, I second everything you say about Bill Nighy. He elevates material the way Gary Oldman does.

    Second, this movie (and Blade) both ripped off much of their world building from the ‘Vampire: The Masquerade’ and ‘Werewolf: The Apocalypse’ role playing games. So much so that White Wolf (the publisher of the games) sued and received a settlement. I was a big player of both games back in the early 90’s, so all the fingerprints of the games are visible to me. Which is why the setting made sense to me.

    Third, ultraviolet bullets are stupid and they have a dumb butt and they like to kiss their own butt. Hated it.

    Fourth, speaking of butts, the damn movie teases Kate Beckinsdale in latex pants and we NEVER get one clear butt shot on her. I still hold a grudge.

    The movie is bad but ‘so bad its good’, mostly due to the performances. But I still hate the UV bullets.

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    1. It really is a mixed bag, but I also have this weird soft spot for it. I remember seeing it in college and coming into my Lit and Film class the next day talking about how it was the coolest movie ever. I still think it’s pretty cool, handling the “trying to be cool” balancing act reasonably well, but no, it’s not what anyone should call good.

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