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Be vawy, vawy quiet. Kate Beckinsale is werewolf huntin'.

© 2003, Sony Pictures
All Rights Reserved

The battle between the Vampires and Lycans (Werewolves) has been raging on for nearly 1000 years. Protecting the Vampires is Selene (Kate Beckinsale, ("Pearl Harbor"), a "Death Dealer" who excels at stopping any Lycan threat. When Selene uncovers a Lycan plot that revolves around a human named Michael (Scott Speedman, ("Dark Blue)", she races to him first, to understand just what the Lycans would want with a worthless human. In a twist of fate, Michael ends up saving Selene's life, and the two eventually begin to bond, much to the disgust of the Vampire nation. As the Lycan army assembles in anticipation of a final, secretive assault, Selene and Michael must try to stay alive as opposing forces close in on them.

When first encountering "Underworld" (IMDb listing) anyone with working eyes can see that the film is entirely derivative of many recent releases. Rainy, gothic locales? "The Crow" series. Vampire and assorted beast hunting? "Blade." Characters doing some slo-mo flipping around with guns in each hand? "The Matrix." A shot where a character is cut by a sharp object, but doesn't realize it until half their face slides off on to the ground? Recently seen in both "Equilibrium" and "Resident Evil." "Underworld" is pretty shameless in treading well worn genre ground. But here's the catch: it does so without ever looking back. This horror/action flick is blessedly determined to not give in to its clichéd leanings, providing a rather entertaining and compelling two hours of monster mayhem. It isn't revolutionary material. I don't think it even wants to be. It takes common genre elements and works them into a new, interesting mythology. I can handle formula if it's handled with enthusiasm, and "Underworld" does exactly that.

Written by Danny McBride, "Underworld" has an unusual amount of story to wade through. Directing freshman Len Wiseman does a fine job balancing the epic nature of the saga with the more traditional action set-pieces. Wiseman bathes the film in darkness, which creates a familiar mood of gloom and desire to cover up the computer effects. But the said effects, which pay tribute to "American Werewolf In London", look pretty snazzy, and are intermixed with decent practical effects - which has become, essentially, a dying art form. The press materials purport a "Romeo and Juliet" level of emotional depth to the piece, but that's not translated to the screen. Wiseman bumbles the romantic relationship between Selene and Michael, leaving that section of the story wanting. Wiseman more than makes up for the lack of emotional connection by keeping his film moving along swiftly and building a nice tower of a narrative from which to work with in any possible sequels, the likelihood of which is rather crudely set up in the film's finale. Hey, Mr. Wiseman, let's make sure people like the first one first, OK?

Though her diminutive size keeps Kate Beckinsale from getting the credit she deserves as a Lycan hunter in the film's first act, the actress soon warms up to the part - or should I say the film eventually catches up to Beckinsale's steely commitment to the role. She's intensely severe and easy to accept as the "Death Dealer," creating quite an image running around clad in latex, blasting away Lycans at a moment's notice, never cracking a smile. Trinity, you better watch your back!

It is actor Shane Brolly who stinks up the joint performance wise. While the rest of the cast is decent with what they are given, and very enthusiastic about their roles, Brolly is stiff and ghastly in the crucial role of Vampire leader Kraven. His ridiculous performance sticks out greatly amongst the careful brood and darkness of "Underworld." If only Wiseman could've noticed and recast the part early in the production.

"Underworld's" greatest gift to the genre? No humor. Played out without an ounce of clowning, "Underworld" succeeds at giving the story the respect it deserves, and not undercutting the drama by trying to cozy up into the lap of the audience. In the end, the picture's straight-faced telling of this potentially harebrained tale is its biggest success.

Filmfodder Grade: B+

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