review by Gregory Avery, 19 September 2003  

In the noisy, chaotic, wildly-overblown Underworld, Kate Beckinsale plays a "death-dealer" for a vampire "coven" in some nameless, Europeanish-looking city where it's always night and only half of the lights are turned on, and she gets to leap from rooftop to balcony and back again wearing either a long black coat slit up to 'yar (haute-Matrix couture) or a skin-tight leather suit like Emma Peel in The Avengers. Unfortunately, Kate Beckinsale is not Diana Rigg, and, after a while, you certainly wish she was. Earlier this year, in Laurel Canyon, Beckinsale gave a blank, inexpressive performance in the role of a woman who loses her inhibitions. Here, she gives a blank, inexpressive performance (made even more so, considering that only half of her face is visible for most of the movie) playing a vampire warrior woman. Somebody ought to check and se if this girl is taking her vitamins.

The movie, filmed almost entirely in blues, grays, and blacks (and the cinematographer is Tony Pierce-Roberts, who recently did some great work in the Merchant and Ivory film The Golden Bowl), is an example of what ten years of video games have done to the movies -- volleys of munitions, and constant action, most of it meaningless. Hints are dropped regarding such things as "the Awakening" and "the Covenant", which we patiently wait to get an explanation on, but then the movie lunges (not "cuts", not "segues") into the next scene, and we wait, and wait, and wait. The movie runs over two hours, and we're still waiting. Meanwhile, characters walk around with great self-importance, wearing uncomfortable-looking outfits and saying things like, "What you will do is summon Kraven." There are grotesque pièces de résistance, like close-ups of hypodermic needles lovingly plunging into flesh, or, in one instance that is sure to leave audiences agog, bullets oozing their way out of open wounds. (Quick! more popcorn!) The story has to do with a centuries-long war between vampires and "lycans", or werewolves, the reason for which is never really elucidated. (Actually, somebody says something about "cellular incapability" -- in which case, why do they show werewolves feasting on vampires in some scenes? The movie breaks its own rules.)

Beckinsale's vampire gets mixed up with a human, played by Scott Speedman, who gets chomped by a werewolf -- big trouble. Speedman has a likable persona and, as he showed in the police drama Dark Blue, an ability to act. He will probably give a really good performance once he gets into a better movie, because, here, he's stuck in one of the most thankless roles of the year -- he's either shackled to a chair, bound to a table, or, near the end, transformed into something which looks like a cross between the Incredible Hulk and a piece of padded furniture. (Various other "lycans" and vampires are played in the film by Michael Sheen, given the Armenian look of the rock group System of a Down; Shane Brolly, who looks like he just swallowed a bug; and Bill Nighy, giving a pretty good performance under the circumstances, as a reawakened vampire elder who initially looks like he could do with a makeover from the Fab Five of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.)

Which brings us to the other big thing about this movie, as I noticed from the trusting souls trudging their way out of the theater as the end credits came shrieking up -- the movie doesn't entertain us; it works us over. At regular intervals, we're smacked in the face by violently put-together montages depicting Lord-knows-what, in the same way someone gets water thrown in their face to bring them back to consciousness before the next piece of torture is administered. It's enough to make people forget why they go to the movies in the first place.

Directed by:
Len Wiseman

Kate Beckinsale
Scott Speedman
Shane Brolly
Michael Sheen
Sophia Myles 
Bill Nighy

Written by:
Danny McBride

R - Restricted
Under 17 requires
parent or adult







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