Underworld

2003, Movie, R, 121 mins

Review

UNDERWORLD
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So clotted with back story that the Romeo and Juliet-style romance between a warrior vampire and a reluctant werewolf never has a chance to breathe, Len Wiseman's revisionist horror tale is all look and no bite. It unfolds in an alternate world in which vampires walk among us, armed to the teeth, and are locked in a 600-year war with the lycans. That's short for lycanthropes — werewolves — but has the misfortune to sound like "lichens," one of several indications that the screenplay was penned by writers who don't have much feel for language. They are steeped in recent horror lore, though, as evinced by liberal borrowings from THE HOWLING (1981), Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles, Marvel's Blade comics and various role-playing games. Selene (Kate Beckinsale) is a "death dealer," a vampire trained to hunt down and kill lycans. She takes her marching orders from Kraven (Shane Brolly), current head of the vampire clan; he succeeded vampire elder Viktor (Bill Nighy) on the strength of having killed Lucian (Michael Sheen), the lycan whose transgressions started the centuries-old blood feud. Selene neither likes nor trusts Kraven, and she is concerned about a flurry of lycan activity that seems to be focused on a mere mortal named Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman). It seems especially inauspicious since the vampires are gathering for an awakening ceremony, after which clan control will be handed to the elder roused from hibernation. Against Kraven's orders, Selene investigates and rescues Michael from the lycans, though she's too late to stop him from being bitten. Though their forbidden romance is apparently meant to lie at the movie's heart, it's too underdeveloped to amount to much dramatically. Not that it's hard to see why Michael prefers Selene to the lycans, who look as though they're auditioning for a Spinal Tap cover band, skulk in sewers and, in any event, all seem to be men. And it's hard to imagine anyone not falling in love with the PVC-clad Beckinsale; even among the ranks of the vampires, who seem to spend most of their time swanking around in black and red goth-rocker ensembles, she's a knockout. But handsome though the film is — the Budapest locations are particularly atmospheric — the story is strangled by speeches about bloodlines, customs, alliances, feuds, battles and ceremonies: It's like The Mahabharata for monster-movie geeks, without the authentic epic power. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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