Underworld

“Underworld” reminded me of the conversation between two of the boys in “Stand By Me.” They’re arguing over who would win a fight between Mighty Mouse and Superman. Teddy, one of the boys, has the answer: “Mighty Mouse is a cartoon. Superman’s a real guy. There’s no way a cartoon could beat up a real guy.”


Of course. Makes sense. But who would win a fight between a vampire and a werewolf? No, this isn’t one of those rock-paper-scissor tie breakers, but the plot of “Underworld,” a bleak, violent, occasionally diverting horror film that should please fans but leave others with a case of the blahs.

Directed by former art department prop maker Len Wiseman, and written by stuntman-actor Danny McBride, “Underworld” is stylish and action-packed, but lacks purpose. Depicting a 1,000 year old war between vampires and werewolves that has spilled over into modern day times, “Underworld” is a good idea that could have been great with more thought. If the filmmakers can’t decide who to root for, how can we?

You know a film is written by a stuntman when it opens with a lengthy fight sequence that seems to go on forever but does little to establish plot or character. Those clumsy attempts are stockpiled in the middle of the film, when the filmmakers slow down the pace to explain their actions. Their arguments aren’t very persuasive.

The always interesting Kate Beckinsale plays Selene, the leader of the vampires and a death dealer, whose job description includes hunting down and killing Lycans (werewolves to you and me). It seems that there has been bad blood between the two species for centuries (anyone who has ever seen “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” knows this to be fact), and the re- emergence of Lycan leader Lucian (Michael Sheen) suggests that the war is far from over.

McBride weaves familiar threads throughout this patchwork of cliches, including the old “Romeo and Juliet” chestnut that never seems to go out fashion. Beckinsale plays Juliet to Scott Speedman’s Romeo, a supposedly human medical intern named Michael who has become a pawn in the two group’s struggle for dominance.

Decked out in vampire chic, Beckinsale looks terrific, and even manages to poke a few dents in the impenetrable screenplay. She understands the limitations of the script and plays to its strengths. Speedman looks appropriately baffled, while Michael Sheen and Shane Brolly fulfill all duties as the turncoat villains.

“Underworld” has the look and feel of a graphic novel. Wiseman is fortunate to have the great British cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts behind the camera, whose previous forays into horror (“The Dark Half,” “Haunted,” a 1995 ghost story starring Kate Beckinsale) were just hints of his stunning work here. Since most of the action takes place at night or in shadows, attention to detail is vital, and Pierce-Roberts gives the gothic playgrounds of production designer Burton Jones the respect they deserve.

The film wisely incorporates mechanical, physical and computer-generated creatures into the mix, a refreshing relief from new age horror films that use computer-generation to show off instead of advance or enhance the plot. Some of the effects are weaker than others, but when all is said and done, they accomplish their goal.

Wiseman has made a visually exciting film, but choosing style over substance is his undoing. “Underworld” may be dark and brooding, but it’s never really fun. Wiseman’s interpretation of the script comes across as mechanical, nothing more than a blueprint to get from one action scene to the next. He treats quiet revelations as necessary evils, never allowing the actors to go beyond the written word to make the scenes honest or at the very least, tolerable.

I like the idea of a war between vampires and werewolves, and I know that one day, maybe not this year, maybe not next year (well maybe next year, if Universal’s “Val Helsing” pairs up “Dracula” and “The Wolfman” in a duel to the death), Hollywood will come up with a film worthy of the idea.

BAD MOON RISINGFangs for the memories

UNDERWORLD

Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Bill Nighy, Michael Sheen, Shane Brolly. Directed by Len Wiseman. Rated R. 121 Minutes.

LARSEN RATING: $4.00



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