Lots of stylish killing?
Check. And it's practically non-stop. As viewers, we're dumped into the middle of a complicated, centuries-old war between vampires and werewolves that spills over into the human world with no bashfulness at all. In the opening sequence, vampire "death dealer" Selene (Kate Beckinsale) looks like a cross between Emma Peel in her all-black, skin-tight outfit and Chow Yun-Fat with arms extended, firing away with two automatic revolvers. She's going up against lycans (short for lycanthropes, or werewolves) who blast away with equal abandon, all of them shooting the hell out of a contemporary subway station in a large metropolis and not caring if humans are in the way. Whatever happened to full moons, shy creatures, and secretive, ambush attacks that set the whole village talking?
Then again, this isn't your parents' world of mythical monsters. There's hardly even anything mystical about these creatures. We find out that werewolves and vampires have a scientific explanation. They aren't aberrations, but rather humans who mutated as the result of a virus and (well, here's a slightly mythic element) bites from a bat and a wolf. It turns out that a man named Corvinus was the only one to survive a virus that wiped out everyone else in his village. The virus in him mutated somehow to conjoin with his own genes, making him the first true immortal. Are you following all this? Good, because if you watch the film, it takes some doing to try to figure it all out. Anyway, Corvinus had three sons, one who was bitten by a bat (which led to the line of vampires), another who was bitten by a wolf (which led to the werewolf clan), and a third that apparently wasn't bitten at all. This line evolved into normal humans, with a twist . . . the current descendant of Corvinus, a man named Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman) is the carrier of those immortal genes and their uncanny ability to absorb and combine the genetics of the mutated lines as well. Got that? Well, if you do, you're one up on me. The more I think about it, the more suspect the whole line of reasoning becomes.
But "Underworld" isn't about reasoning. It's about an underground, Goth-like lifestyle and an action film that uses traditional horror creatures instead of good guys and bad guys. It's plenty stylish, with a rocking techno-classical soundtrack and a bluish tint that emphasizes that these immortals live in a world of darkness, if not night. They also have more weapons than the U.S. Army. Where do they get them, or all the rounds of ammunition? And where are their underground lairs in relation to the rest of the normal city? Well, we as viewers may as well have been blindfolded and taken there, because nothing contextual is ever clear.
As Selene, Beckinsale makes an interesting (and yes, sexy) hero who suspects that the lycan leader of old who was presumed dead is really alive. She tries to tell the higher-ups in vampireland, but of course no one believes her, and she has to take matters into her own hands. This involves waking the kinda-dead leader of the vampire clan earlier than a centuries-old ceremony that, we're told by the kinda-dead leader Viktor himself (Bill Nighy), is the only thing responsible for their survival. Ummm, I thought it was the same bloodline that begat the werewolves and gave them immortality? But never mind. This plot device only exists to exacerbate a conflict that had been brewing between death dealer Selene and one of the vampire mucky-mucks--a long-haired guy named Kraven (Shane Brolly).
The film really belongs to Beckinsale, who's the stylish focal point and almost as much of a lightning rod as poor Michael, who's sought after by Lucian (Michael Sheen), the leader of the werewolves. Even after Lucian takes a bite out of Michael and our attention turns to Selene and Michael as they join forces, it's still Beckinsale in her sleek and shiny all-black outfit with the long black trenchcoat that commands our attention.
That's good, because the film itself gets lost in its own action and convoluted explanation of the species and their centuries-old war. But at least there's style, and almost as much of it as there are mutant creatures running around with oversized automatic weapons. Yes, we see teeth and claws, but nowhere near what we're used to in vampire or werewolf films. In his first outing as a feature-film director, Len Wiseman gives us a stylish action film that features an NRA arsenal of stylish weapons. Add Beckinsale's equally stylish character and art, background, and costume design that reinforces the idea of an "underworld," and you have a film that's at least watchable, if not praiseworthy. And there's just too much of a muddle and not nearly enough character development for me to trot out the superlatives.
This is the unrated version, but the level of violence would still earn it an "R" rating, if parents out there are wondering.
The 1080p picture is exceptional. Blu-ray was made for films like this, with murky and dark interiors/exteriors still yielding a ton of detail. Margins are distinct, black levels are strong, and the bluish tint that dominates the film doesn't obscure anything. Rather, you believe it as a world, everything looks so sharp. "Underworld" is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen.
BOOM! baby. The Blu-ray sound is a joy to behold, with the English or Italian PCM 5.1 uncompressed audio bullet-whizzing and explosion-rocking clear and powerful. Additional sound options are English, Italian, and French Dolby Digital 5.1, but you have to rig your system to allow you to play the PCM version. It's as good as I've heard.
If you love this movie, you're going to want to add it to your collection in Blu-ray, and not just because of the video quality. Normally Blu-ray shortchanges collectors when it comes to bonus features, but this time it's the edition to get. The DVD version of the unrated print featured a pair of short features that weren't on the first release, but lacked two commentaries from the previous "rated-R" DVD. But apart from the crew commentary that turns up M.I.A., everything is included on this single-disc 50-gig Blu-ray. That's too bad, because I actually preferred the crew commentary to the one with the director, Beckinsale, and Speedman that's included here. Then again, I prefer my commentaries jam-packed with significant detail and behind-the-scenes information. Others might prefer to be entertained, and if that's the case, then Sony picked the right one for this release.
There are 21 features, not counting the commentaries. Most of them are worth watching, too, if you like the film. There's a "making of" short feature, a one on the visual effects, another on creature effects, stunts, art and set design, and the visual style of "Underworld." There's also one on the "sights and sounds" of "Underworld," a music video of Finch ("Worms of the Earth"), a storyboard comparison, outtakes, and a long feature on "Fang vs. Fiction." The latter is a made-for-TV documentary that features authors of books on vampires and werewolves and two guys who claim to be a modern werewolf and vampire. O-kay.
If you like vampire movies, you'll probably like "Underworld"; if you like action movies, you'll probably like "Underworld"; but if you like movies that come together in a satisfying way, you'll find Wiseman's film lacking. It's all style, and just not enough substance.