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'Underworld' wraps derivative style in a cloak of camp

September 19, 2003|Manohla Dargis | Time Staff Writer

In "Underworld," the young English actress Kate Beckinsale wears a lot of gleaming black latex, shoots formidably sized guns and confesses to the thrill of being something called a Death Dealer. "I live for it," she says, deploying a distinctly butch if rather inapt turn of phrase for a vampire and member of the famously undead.

Logic doesn't figure prominently in the latest entry into the horror-fantasy amalgam -- a kind of monster-mash "Romeo and Juliet" featuring vampires and werewolves -- which works to the good and bad of the story. As a Death Dealer named Selene, Beckinsale wears the hero-avenger's grim resignation as well as the sort of cinched corset and strappy boots that wouldn't look out of place at a fetish ball yet register as oddly appropriate for bagging big game. The objects of her cross-hair wrath are the Lycan (rhymes with "lichen"), avid connoisseurs of flesh tartare who look as if they play in a metal band and are embroiled in a centuries-old battle with the vampires. For some reason, the Lycan have set their sights on a young human, Michael (Scott Speedman), which is where Selene blazes in.

Why the vampires and werewolves are going at it tooth and fang and how Michael figures into their bloody feud emerge only after many bodies and bullets have been lovingly spent, and then almost as an afterthought. That's too bad, not only because the vampire-werewolf dynamic could use some dusting off (the lead werewolf is played by one of the film's stronger actors, Michael Sheen) but also because there are glimmers of talent amid the cliches and second-hand style. Bathed in television-blue and punctuated by splashes of red, "Underworld" borrows much of its look from superior entertainments -- "The Matrix" hangs heavily over the film, as do "The Crow," "Blade" and countless Hong Kong shoot-outs -- but director Len Wiseman brings a nice Goth flavor to the proceedings.

Alas, as is often the case with lower-end genre movies, the story cooked up by Wiseman and his friends, actor Kevin Grevioux and the film's screenwriter, Danny McBride, is decidedly less important than the look of the film and its influences. What counts here aren't heart- and story-beats but how the characters brandish their guns (usually at a 90-degree angle, one in each fist), snap their dusters (part parachute jumper, part runway model) and maintain their cool while mowing down the enemy (a little like Dirty Harry, a lot like Neo). Clothes don't just figuratively make man and monster in "Underworld," they make up the greater part of their characters. Hence the aforementioned dusters, a cumbersome addition to the urban warrior's costume that's long overdue for permanent cold storage.

The same fate might be in store for Wiseman and company, who, despite their energy and an almost endearing commitment to the material, can't save "Underworld" from drifting into (presumably) unintentional camp, in particular whenever the vampires hit the scene. Although her slight frame undermines her assassin's credibility, Beckinsale's grace and chilly beauty go a long way toward making her character sufficiently plausible. (When she swoops down off a high rise, she lands by rocking off her heels as a gymnast does.) The same, however, can't be said for the rest of the coven, who strike louche poses down at bloodsucker headquarters while taking orders from the impossibly named Kraven (Shane Brolly). Wearing a sparkly shirt that would look good on Liberace and probably did, this guy doesn't just bite -- he kills.



MPAA rating: R, for strong violence/gore, some language

Times guidelines: Scary monsters, bloodied flesh, an occasional epithet

Kate Beckinsale...Selene

Scott Speedman...Michael Corvin

Michael Sheen...Lucian

Shane Brolly...Kraven

Bill Nighy...Viktor

Screen Gems and Lakeshore Entertainment present a Lakeshore Entertainment Production, released by Screen Gems. Director Len Wiseman. Screenwriter Danny McBride. Story by Kevin Grevioux, Len Wiseman, Danny McBride. Producers Tom Rosenberg, Gary Lucchesi, Richard Wright. Production designer Bruton Jones. Art director Kevin Phipps. Director of photography Tony Pierce-Roberts. Editor Martin Hunter. Creature designer Patrick Tatopoulos. Costume designer Wendy Partridge. Music Paul Haslinger. Sound designer Claude Letessier. Casting Deborah Aquila, Tricia Wood, Celestia Fox. Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute.

In general release.

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