Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 14 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence/Gore and some Language
Directed by: Len Wiseman
Written by: Danny McBride
Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Bill Nighy, Michael Sheen, Shane Brolly, Erwin Leder, Sophia Myles, Robbie Gee & Kevin Grevioux
2003’s UNDERWORLD came out when I was just entering junior high school and this film was the talk of all my preteen friends, though we were far too young to go watch this in a theater. When it premiered on cable, I remember watching it and liking it. However, I haven’t seen this first film in over a decade. UNDERWORLD has the nifty premise of vampires fighting werewolves…in present day…with cool weapons. While it’s far from perfect, UNDERWORLD is an entertaining watch that has amazing visuals and lots of creativity (alongside many clichés).
For centuries, a war has raged between vampires and lycans (the fancy word for werewolves). Humans are unaware of these monsters’ existence and their feud, but this changes when medical student Michael (Scott Speedman) is thrust into the middle of the conflict. Supposedly dead lycan leader Lucian (Michael Sheen) wants Michael for some reason and vampire death-dealer Selene (Kate Beckinsale) has taken an interest in the human. The monstrous factions begin to reach boiling points as new weapons come to light, alongside buried history and a master plan that may end the war. Selene soon finds herself saddled with deep feelings for Michael and discoveries that blur her long-standing loyalty.
When watching UNDERWORLD, it immediately becomes clear that creators Danny McBride, Kevin Grevioux, and Len Wiseman put a lot of thought into crafting extensive lore behind the plot. The politics of vampire coven rituals are complicated, but the trio simplify things to the point where the viewer can easily grasp what’s going on. There’s also an avid history behind the vampire-lycan conflict itself, but this won’t come as a shocking twist to first-time viewers who’ve already seen origin story RISE OF THE LYCANS. UNDERWORLD was originally planned as a trilogy of films, which explains the eye-rollingly obvious cliffhanger ending that’s left wide open for a sequel.
Plot-wise, UNDERWORLD is a bloody, clichéd, and fun mixture of ROMEO & JULIET, BLADE, and THE MATRIX. Even with these obvious influences, the resulting film is its own cinematic beast (aided by lots of latex and blue filters). The pacing is mostly compelling, though the middle section occasionally drags for the sake of giving lengthy exposition behind the series’ fanged/furry mythology. These slower points are easily remedied by an action-packed final third that delivers a bad-ass creation that’s never been seen on film before.
Though the plot may contain more than its fair share of clichés and familiarity, UNDERWORLD is a visually stunning movie. Lots of slow motion, slick cinematography, and MATRIX-inspired (in a good way) action sequences make their way into the mix. This film doesn’t skimp on the gore either, because vamps and wolves go at each other’s throats with a variety of weapons. Sometimes, these are specialized bullets and hand-to-hand/claw-to-claw combat. Other times, these warring monsters use kick-ass weapons brought in for a specific scene (e.g. metal whips, bladed discs, etc.).
Kate Beckinsale slips into a sexy latex catsuit as vampire Selene, though she’s just as dangerous as she is attractive. This female bad-ass provides a solid protagonist for the audience to root for, especially as her preconceived notions about the war begin to shatter. I wish the same could be said for Scott Speedman as Selene’s human love-interest Michael. Speedman is wooden as the dude-in-distress and functions as a walking plot device. Even worse than Speedman’s blandness is Shane Brolly as scumbag vampire Kraven. He plays his character with all the subtleties of a moustache-twirling villain. Thankfully, Bill Nighy and Michael Sheen make up for Speedman and Brolly’s bad acting, as the determined leaders of the warring monster factions.
Though UNDERWORLD suffers from overly familiar clichés, two lame characters, and an occasionally dull middle section, this film still delivers on being entertaining. If the idea of vampires and werewolves fighting (with guns, no less) intrigues you, you’re likely to have a good time watching UNDERWORLD. It’s far from high art, but very much succeeds at being a fun, visually stunning horror-actioner!