Our reviews of 3 Silent Classics By Josef Von Sternberg: Criterion Collection (published August 25th, 2010), Underworld (Blu-Ray) (published September 27th, 2007), Underworld Trilogy (published May 22nd, 2009), Underworld Trilogy (Blu-Ray) (published May 18th, 2009), Underworld / Underworld: Evolution (published January 23rd, 2009), and Underworld: Extended Cut (published December 3rd, 2004) are also available.
Which side will you choose?
Everyone loves a good vampire yarn. And what self-respecting horror fan doesn't drool at the possibility of a gory werewolf flick? Columbia TriStar, smelling a hit, mashed these two monsters together and created the action horror thriller Underworld, a minor hit upon its theatrical release (but no smash). Underworld stars Kate Beckinsale (Pearl Harbor, Serendipity) as a vampire huntress who falls a newly bitten werewolf played by Scott Speedman (TV's Felicity). How delightful. Underworld makes its DVD debut care of Columbia Home Entertainment.
Facts of the Case
For years, vampires and Lycans (werewolves) have been embattled in a blood feud whose history seems a mystery. The vampires, a coven of socialites that spend their time in gothic castles looking pretty, utilize their cash flow hunting down the Lycans and laying waste to their kind. Selene (Beckinsale) is one of the vampire hunters (AKA "death dealers") who stumble across the Lycans chasing down a human, Michael (Speedman), in a local subway. After being bitten by the Lycan's leader, Lucian (Michael Small), the werewolf establishment seems even more desperate to find Michael. Why? It seems that this particular human possesses a rare blood type that will successfully create a dangerous and powerful vampire/werewolf hybrid. As Selene attempts to keep Michael safe, she runs into resistance from the vampire leader, Kraven (Shane Brolly, Imposter), and the newly awakened vampire Lord, Viktor (Bill Nighy), who at first doubts Selene but quickly realizes she's smarter than she looks. As the Lycans close in on Selene and her vampire coven, it appears that the answers to Selene's questions—and what started the blood feud—may begin and end with Michael's past.
Underworld is a movie of high gloss and shine, but little else. The idea of taking werewolves and vampires and pitting them against each other seems like a novel idea. Hey, I can think of nothing more cinematically orgasmic than watching a hairy lycanthrope tearing apart a bloodsucker while guns blaze and bodies fall. Yet Underworld seems oddly flaccid in its execution—something is definitely missing.
Surely it's not the action set pieces or special effects. There are many wonderfully bombastic moments in Underworld where the screen lights up with werewolves on the walls and ceilings, cars flipping over, and guns a-blazing. The film was directed by Les Wisemen (also Beckinsale's fiancé), who'd previously worked on Independence Day and Stargate in the prop department. What entitled him to a directing job on Underworld is a mystery, though in all fairness the visuals in this movie are above average. Rain soaked streets (marked by grays and blues), gothic interiors, and urban lairs permeate almost every frame of the film. By all means, the thing certainly looks pretty.
What isn't above average is the screenplay by Danny McBride (his first), which doesn't give viewers much in the way of characterization. Aside of a few major players everyone else seems to get lost in the mix. Most all of the dialogue is spoken with either anger, growls, or deep pangs of frustration. It seems commonplace in action movies that the actors must look like their concentrating really hard whenever they speak their lines, no more so than in Underworld. So much care is given to the seriousness of the story that little time is left for humor or fun—Underworld often feels like it's a chore to watch when ultimately it should have been a wildly entertaining popcorn movie.
Kate Beckinsale looks great as Selene, a woman who apparently has six closets full of black leather outfits ("Hmmm," she must think in the morning, "What shall I wear today? My leather cape, this sexy leather cape, or this nicely woven leather cape?"). If nothing else, Beckinsale is endlessly easy on the eyes. Scott Speedman is about as interesting as a block of wood—his character's only distinguishing trait is that he may end up someday on the cover of Teen Beat. In fact, there is not one normal looking person in this movie—all the women are sexy and almost all the men sport rock star looks and long, Chippendales quality hair. This leads me to believe that if there really is a coven of vampires and werewolves, they must all live in Hollywood…and Fabio is their leader. Also worth mentioning is the cadaverous Bill Nighy (Love Actually) as Viktor, the master vampire with an attitude, and Michael Sheen (Timeline, and no relation to Charlie or Martin) as Lucian, the leader of the werewolves whose facial expression often seems to cry out "I'm looking for some puppy chow and I want it right now or heads are gonna roll."
If you're searching for a movie that features a rapid fire arsenal, werewolves the size of a Cadillac convertibles, and Kate Beckinsale looking like she just stepped out of an S&M film, Underworld may make your Friday night sparkle a little brighter. Everyone else should rent the far better From Dusk Till Dawn or Silver Bullet for your fill of blood and guts.
[Editor's Note: And you thought you'd never see someone call From Dusk Till Dawn better than anything.]
Underworld is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Columbia has spared no expense in making sure this transfer is bright, bold, and in excellent shape. There aren't any major imperfections in this image—the colors (blues, grays, silvers) are bright while the black levels are solidly dark. There isn't a whole lot more to say about this transfer—it's top notch and should definitely please fans of the film. Also available on a separate DVD is a full screen version of the film, but it's not recommended.
The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround in English and French. Much like the video presentation, this 5.1 sound mix is excellent. There are many instances where directional effects are utilized, especially during the mammoth action scenes and anytime the werewolves come clawing their way around corners. Also prominently displayed is composer Paul Haslinger's throbbing, tense music score. Also included on this disc are English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Columbia has bitten its teeth into Underworld and produced a decent DVD filled with informative extra features. Starting off the disc is two commentary tracks, the first by director Len Wiseman, actor/story writer Kevin Grevioux and screenwriter Danny McBride, and the second with creature designer Patrick Tatopoulos, executive producer/visual effects supervisor James McQuaide, and sound designer Claude Letessier. Both of these tracks feature a wealth of information on the making of the film. The first track focuses a bit more on story and character, while the second track dives deep into the technical information (and is often hard to understand due to the participants' heavy accents). Viewers will find both of these tracks to be well worth the listen if they're fans of the film.
Next up are four featurettes ("The Making of Underworld," "Creature Effects," "Stunts," and "Sights and Sounds") that chronicle the making of the film. As you can tell by the featurette names, each short takes a look at different aspects of the film's conception and production. The best of the four is "Creature Effects," which gives the viewer insight into how the werewolf effects were achieved. Most of these features include some interesting behind-the-scenes footage from the shoot, as well as interviews with various cast and crew members. An optional "play all" choice is also available.
Finally, there us a music video for the song "Worms of the Earth" by Finch, two TV spots, a theatrical trailer, six and a half minutes worth of storyboard comparisons, and bonus trailers for other Columbia vampire/horror movies (including John Carpenter's Vampires, Vampires: Los Muertos, The Forsaken, Resident Evil, and Resident Evil 2: Apocalypse).
Underworld is entertaining in a very mindless sort of way, and that's about it. The most disappointing aspect of the film is that it really feels like it could have been so much better. Columbia's work on this disc is well above average with enough supplements to satisfy even the hungriest Underworld fans.
Underworld's script could have used a little more bark and bite; otherwise, it's a fairly fun little flick if you know where the "off" button is on your brain.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary Track by Director Len Wiseman, Actor/Story Writer Kevin Grevioux, and Screenwriter Danny McBride
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