Wednesday, November 26, 2008

FILM REVIEW OF ''UNDERWORLD" (2003-British-German-Hungerian-U.S.)

Synthesize elements from famous film franchises like "The Crow," "The Matrix," and "Blade" to forge a bullet-riddled, revisionist vampires-vs.-werewolves urban war epic, and you'll have a pretty good idea what to expect from the exciting, new, fantasy chiller "Underworld" (*** out of ****) starring "Pearl Harbor" beauty Kate Beckinsale. This supercharged but synthetic British horror thriller with R-rated heaps of blood & gore and a touch of Shakespeare plays fast and loose with vampire lore. Not only do the vamps refrain from shape shifting into bats, but also these pale-faced bloodsuckers can stare at their reflections in the mirror! Were that not enough these fangsters don't have to shack up for the day in their caskets. On the other hand, rookie director Len Wiseman and stuntman-turned-scenarist Danny McBride adhere to the lycanthrope legend with no radical departures.

Action-packed from the outset, this darkly-lensed, tragic melodrama laid in a rain swept contemporary setting provides enough different things along the way with a couple of major plot revelations to boost "Underworld" above its formulaic origins. For example, the vampires load their automatic weapons with silver nitrate slugs, while the werewolves pack cartridges filled with ultra-violet light to literally let daylight through their sworn enemies. The special effects sequences that depict the transformation from man into werewolf look super cool, and the sight of these scary creatures hauling butt on the walls in pursuit of their prey make for vivid, memorable images. One especially clever scene shows a werewolf as he uses his bodily powers to pop the bullets out of his wounds!

Although it runs a little over two hours, "Underworld" maintains enough momentum in its melodramatic narrative and features strong enough villains that it entertains you without giving you nightmares. Surprisingly, though it looks like it should have descended from a graphic novel, "Underworld" boasts no previous source material aside from an original story penned by black stuntman-turned-actor Kevin Grevioux, former "Stargate" art director Wiseman, and McBride himself. When the bullets aren't thudding noisily in your ears, "Underworld" features a deafening, industrial-strength, orchestral soundtrack written by ex-Tangerine Dreamer Paul Haslinger with songs written by David Bowie and Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciate. Get ready to rock out!

Kate Beckinsale plays a super-sexy leather-clad vampire warrior named Selene who cannot kill enough werewolves to satisfy her thirst for vengeance. Vampires and werewolves have been fighting a no-holds-barred civil war for centuries, and the vampires finally appear to have gotten the upper hand over the Lycans. According to Selene, these hideous Lycans wiped out her entire family and would have killed her too had it not been for vampire elder Viktor (Bill Nighy of "Hitler's S.S.: Portrait in Evil") who saved her life and turned her into a vampire. Meanwhile, as Viktor rests in his tomb, his hand-picked protégé Craven (Shane Brolly of "Impostor") appears to have turned traitor to his own kind. Secretly, Kraven has been negotiating a truce behind the scenes with the Lycans who are trying to develop a serum which will enable Lycans and vampires to mate.

Naturally, when Selene awakens Viktor and reveals Kraven's insidious plot, all hell breaks loose. Furthermore, it doesn't help matters that the apparently whipped Lycans are far from whipped as Selene learns in an opening shoot-out in a subway tunnel. No, human society doesn't know about the millennium war happening right under their noses, because the vampires and werewolves conceal themselves so well. In fact, the vampires maintain their own blood bank, so they don't have to bleed humans dry. Once a rebellious Selene resurrects Viktor to punish the treacherous Kraven, the action really slams into high gear.

Despite Kraven's assurances to the contrary that the werewolves have been eliminated as a threat, Selene sets out to convince Viktor that the werewolves are staging a comeback. Nothing can stop our hardnosed heroine from proving her point, even if she must turn against her own breed. Apparently, the Lycans have found a human, Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman of "Duets") who can assimilate both vampire and werewolf DNA so as to reproduce. Complications arise when Michael saves Selene's life, and she finds herself attracted to him. In "Underworld,"

Director Len Wiseman, who served as art director not only on the theatrical "Stargate" but also "Independence Day," makes the most of his threadbare $20-million production so that "Underworld" can compete with the films that inspired it. Set amid gloomy, Gothic castles where the elitist vampires huddle in their fight against evil, "Underworld" stresses adrenaline-laced action with just enough time out for the exposition to keep audiences on track about who's who. While the characters aren't as substantial as they could be, each shows a different side as the plot approaches its climax. Selene changes from a mindless werewolf killer from the get-go when she learns the truth about her family and the heroic vampire who saved her from sure death. Tucked away in the flashbacks is another story that revolves around the villainous Viktor that explains his hatred of all things Lycan.

Surprisingly, for a British-produced movie, "Underworld" ignores sex, nudity, and romance in favor of bloodletting and mutilation. Although it cannot compare with "The Crow," "The Matrix," and "Blade," "Underworld"manages nevertheless to carve out a niche of its own, if only because it is a British production. The fact that the Brits were able to produce their own variation on these popular, special effects laden spectacles is reason enough to watch it. Unfortunately, like the vampires here who refuse to countenance interspecies breeding, nearly 90 per cent of American film critics have staked out this well-made thriller because they feel it offers nothing new and lacks the polished production values of those other film franchises. Truth is that getting a large scale action film like "Underworld" made in England by Englishmen amounts to something like a miracle.

While it doesn't look as polished as "The Crow," "The Matrix," or "Blade," "Underworld" still ranks a good horror thriller that you can sink your teeth into and enjoy for its vitality.

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