A pale woman in a vinyl catsuit opened fire indiscriminately today. Among the casualties were Plot and Consistency. She should be considered armed and extremely British.
WARNING: MAY CONTAIN MILD SPOILERS! (ALSO, BANG BANG! SLICE SLICE!)
Shortly after the events of Underworld: Evolution, vampire warrior Selene (Kate Beckinsale) and her vampire/werewolf hybrid lover Michael (Not Scott Speedman) are captured by human forces who have recently discovered the beasties in their midst and have initiated a cleansing campaign. The organization, Antigen, led by scientist Jacob Lane (Stephen Rea), keeps the pair in suspended animation for 12 years. When Selene awakes and escapes, she finds herself in a new war with new stakes, including the life of Eve (India Eisley) a hybrid girl bred in Antigen’s labs. She joins forces with the young vampire David (Theo James) and human detective Sebastian (Michael Ealy) to take Antigen down.
Underworld: The Quest For Kate Beckinsale’s Paycheck.
In 2003, the first Underworld film was released shortly after the similar Resident Evil film. Both films featured stoic women in sexy outfits kicking a whole lot of supernatural ass. However, whereas RE was based on a video game, Underworld stood out by being essentially an armed-to-the-teeth, steroidal, radical adaptation of Romeo & Juliet as envisioned by White Wolf fanboys (a fact that White Wolf sued the studio over). Much of the film’s appeal rested squarely on the slight, pale shoulders of Kate Beckinsale; an unlikely action hero as you could have imagined, but an effective and compelling lead all the same. It also managed an odd balance between totally awesome and completely ridiculous and had just enough plot to qualify as an actual movie. Underworld: Evolution tipped the scales too far to “ridiculous” and suffered for it, buried under a mountain of incoherent plot points. Underworld: Awakening reclaims some of the awesome, but it does so by primarily ignoring plot points altogether.
Len Weisman, director of the first two films and co-creator of the series, has given up the director’s chair to the Swedish team of Måns Mårlind and Bjorn Stein, but still maintains screenplay credit with John Hlavin, Allison Burnett and (inexplicably) J. Michael Straczysnki. The Swedes (no, you type those diacritic rings over the name) maintain the look of the Underworld series well. Dim lighting, blue filters, slow motion, check. The script is a jumble of exclamations and emphatics, with little subtlety and no humor, but it’s no worse off than any of the RE films or, for that matter, your typical January action film.
INTERIOR: BUILDING, SELENE GO BANG BANG. END SCENE.
Kate Beckinsale is still great as Selene, and she’s still the primary draw for the films. She’s an indestructible bad-ass in a killer pair of boots, and we all love her for it. A team composed of Kate, Milla Jovovich, Angelina Jolie and lots of guns would probably rule the world in the time it takes to write this review. She doesn’t seem quite as committed to the role this time around, although she fakes it well. The fact that Weisman, whom she married shortly after the release of the first Underworld wrapped, isn’t behind the camera might have something to do with it. She has a great rapport with India Eisley, however, and the two of them are extremely believable in their Ripley/Newt relationship. Eisley also gets to have some of the most entertaining scenes when Eve gets to “hybrid out” and go crazy on the bad guys.
The rest of the cast…well…I suppose we should mention them. Of all of them, only Theo James makes a decent impression, but that might be my opinion because I have a thing for hot British guys with icy blue eyes who can take out a dozen opponents in a couple of heartbeats while wearing tight turtlenecks. He also seems to be the only one besides Eisley who’s sort of enjoying himself. Stephen Rea is completely uninvolved with his role, clearly calculating his condo payments while telegraphing in his performance (he couldn’t even be bothered to use a phone to do it). Worse is an obviously slumming Charles Dance, completely wasted in a role as a vampire elder that makes one long for Bill Nighy’s scenery gorging from the first film. On the other hand, Sandrine Holt tries way too hard in her minor role as a sympathetic Antigen techie who’s significant only for being the only other adult female in the entire film with any lines. The best that can be said about the supporting cast is that the dead weight of Scott Speedman has been jettisoned for some generic male model with nice pecs…who still has more chemistry with Kate Beckinsale than Speedman did.
David is fully-armed and fully-pecced.
But then again, nobody goes to Underworld movies for their intellectual dialogue or adept portrayals of characters that might actually have three dimensions. Admit it. You like seeing willowy women totally and completely own a movie full of big, dumb men. It’s okay. You’re among friends here. U:A does its job well if that job is delivering 90 minutes of vampire-on-human-or-lycan-or-whatever action with a generous side helping of carnage. The problems arise when you stop to think about it for even a second. At that point, a good deal of the film begins to fall apart in spectacular ways.
The film is brutally violent, and Selene takes out humans indiscriminately, apparently losing the concern for innocents she had in the previous films. It makes her a less likable protagonist, and it doesn’t help matters when her roaring rampage of revenge is justified with a third act hand-wave that’s as absurd as it is arbitrary. The humans are set up from scene one as the bad guys, even though they’re fighting against monsters that would eat and/or kill them if given half a chance. There’s really no good side to root for here, as the script seems to go out of its way to make nearly everybody into a trigger-happy criminal.
What do you MEAN this coat doesn’t go with this outfit? TAKE IT BACK!
Even worse, the film liberally steals from both the Resident Evil films and Ultraviolet, coming full circle by imitating a movie that was itself accused of imitating Underworld. It even steals from itself, with a number of scenes simply a re-staging of cool moments from the first film. When David brings out a (clearly CGI) chain to battle lycan adversaries, it’s entirely reminiscent of a similar scene in the first film. Selene shoots her way out of windows and floors again, although this time she shoots up into the ceiling instead of down. An epic battle between Selene and a super-sized lycan in a cavernous arena is pretty cool, until you realize that it’s a lot like the Alice/Nemesis fight from Resident Evil: Apocalypse crossed with one of the set pieces from Priest. So many of the plot points in the film are so similar to Ultraviolet that Kurt Wimmer may have a copyright lawsuit waiting. The fact that a trailer for Resident Evil: Retribution is attached to most prints of the film further adds to the nearly completely interchangeable nature of the franchises.
With all this against it, you’d think the film would deserve a lower rating than it gets, but despite all its flaws, the film is a 90-minute slice of delicious Reptile Brain Pie. Kate Beckinsale looks fantastic in the fight scenes, and for the most part, the melee is well-staged and expertly-choreographed. It might not quite make the grade as an actual movie, but as a carrier device for macho-women-with-guns, it’s an unqualified success. And at least these vampires don’t whine, don’t sparkle, and they respond to angst by blowing it to smithereens. I like that.
Rating: 5 out of 10 / C
JOHNNY M is a frequent FBOTU contributor and has to wrap this up before sunrise.