(R) 121 minutes
Verdict: A riveting fantasy film, drunk with Gothic stylings and dripping with bloody battles between vampires and werewolves.
By BOB LONGINGO
The war between the vampires and the werewolves is coming to a head.
Starring: Kate Beckinsale,
It might be enough that Kate Beckinsale struts through some of the dour netherworld of “Underworld” in the sexiest, tightest, blackest, leatheriest cat suit you've seen this side of “The Matrix's” Carrie-Anne Moss.
But this movie is more than
that. The surprisingly fine, involving “Underworld” echoes the muscular feel of
“Aliens,” the relentless speed of “The Terminator” and the architectural
colorlessness and operatic anxiety of “
To boot, it's got vampires fighting fang to claw with werewolves. How cool is that?
The ultra-Gothic “Underworld,” from first-time director Len Wiseman, far surpasses the bloodier, vampire-riddled “Blade” and is just plain artfully cool — as cool as a movie can be that imitates “Matrix” battle scenes as much as this one does. That will bother many a special effects fan.
Like Keanu Reeves and crew in “Matrix,” the svelte, ice-tempered vampires do walk resolutely in dark leather and sport super-long overcoats. They fire terrifically sleek revolvers that spit monster bullets in slow motion at their hulking prey. They do slo-mo back flips. They leap off skyscrapers to land gently on their metropolis' dingy streets.
Like too many action-adventure movies, all this could be way too much “Matrix”-ology. But “Underworld” is wilier than most, sidestepping all its obvious connections to the modern-day mother of all action films.
Partly, that's achieved
with its first on-screen transformation of a human figure into a ferocious
werewolf. Many may be reminded of “An American Werewolf in
There's more. A vampire simultaneously flicking two whips. Bloody massacres in a sewer and on a train. Secret human experiments. “Underworld” just keeps churning and bellowing and swirling, flipping its Shakespearean story line and hurling violence, until a viewer simply can't stop watching.
Beckinsale, in a role that's the exact
opposite of her unsure nurse in “
Her story is wrapped in centuries of conflict between vampires and werewolves. For both sides, genocide appears to be the final solution. Into the fray falls Michael (Scott Speedman of TV's “Felicity”). He's simply a man, but he's being tracked by the werewolf hierarchy for mysterious reasons.
As Selene investigates, she develops a relationship with Michael that threatens her own vampire coven.
Sounds very comic book, doesn't it?
“Underworld” is. It's mythic and medieval, a deep, dark graphic novel wrapped in the filmy veneer of celluloid.
Director Wiseman sometimes does overstate his movie, in which human characters too often conveniently disappear. There are too many full-of-itself close-ups, too many operatic enunciations from its tortured characters. Even too much length. (At just over two hours, the movie seems slightly stretched.)
But there's more to say about a film that, after its opening narration, begins with a riveting subway shootout and gripping chase that closes with a seamy character spouting, “You're acting like a pack of rabid dogs.”
Fans of “Seven,” “Fight Club,” “Aliens” and the Orcs of “The Lord of the Rings” will likely chant, “Show us more.”
'Underworld': The horrors of war
Kate Beckinsale goes goth for "Underworld," a film that pits vampires against werewolves.
DIRECTOR: Len Wiseman
The most interesting thing about the splashy horror film, "Underworld," is that, despite the claims of its publicity campaign, it's not really a horror movie at all -- nor is it the horror/erotic Romeo and Juliet story that's been billed in the fall previews.
Yes, there's a whiff of a star-crossed, Ann Rice-ian love story at its core. Yes, every character in the movie is either a vampire or a werewolf. And, sure, there's plenty of blood-letting, ghoulish attacks from dark corners and morphing, Lycian transformations.
But the thing is more properly a war movie. Its mythic horror characters fight each other not with fang and claw but with blazing machine guns and high-tech pistols firing bullets loaded with light-beams (against the vampires) and silver nitrate (against the werewolves).
The drama of its scenes deals not with suspense and creeping terror but with strategy and the legacy of ancient history. It's Shakespearean in its political machinations and closer to "Saving Private Ryan" and "Starship Troopers" than to "Dracula" or "The Howling."
As such, there's an epic silliness about it that the movie never quite overcomes. But it's also completely true to its style and sensibility, and it builds a furious, absorbing momentum that gradually just sweeps you away, almost against your will.
Set in some unnamed, rain-swept European city (it was filmed in Budapest), the movie takes place at the climax of a thousand-year-old blood feud between a coven of vampires and a pack of werewolves, and its story opens with a blistering shootout on a subway.
The main character is Selene (Kate Beckinsale), a beautiful young vampire with an itchy trigger finger, who stumbles upon and finds herself attracted to the object of this opening melee: a closet Lycan (Scott Speedman) who unknowingly holds the fate of the war in his bloodstream.
On this premise, first-time director Len Wiseman constructs a macabre combat movie that is essentially one long action sequence: a single adrenaline rush, punctuated by only a few tense breathing spaces that don't really serve as down time.
It's the kind of movie that, if you fail to get with it from the start, can be absolutely agonizing to sit through -- especially with a two-hour-plus running time. And if you blink, you can get lost in the complexity of its hastily established but narratively vital back story.
But, if you do get aboard, it's all strangely engrossing, and the film works as an exhilarating celebration of the gothic style. Indeed, it may be the first major film aimed primarily at the modern goth subculture -- with no concessions or condescending humor for the rest of us.
At the center of all this mayhem, Beckinsale makes a most stunning focus. With her flowing black coat and steely Taoist confidence, she may be a bit too obviously a female version of Keanu Reeves' Neo, but she's poetry in motion and she projects an exquisitely soothing intelligence and determination.
As the calcified elder of the vampire clan, Bill Nighy is even more effective. In fact, he creates a character of such awesome, malignant power that he single-handedly centers the movie and pulls off (considering he's best known as a comic actor) what could well be this movie year's most dazzling change of pace.