REVIEW: Underworld Evolution

The original “Underworld” looked like a loser almost right from the get-go when it was released back in 2003. A goth/metal-infused action/horror hybrid popping up out of nowhere special in the post-“Blade” period when goth/metal-infused action/horror hybrids were getting nearly as numerous as romantic comedies. It looked to have bitten off even more of “The Matrix’s” style than every other action film had, and the notion of itty-bitty British cutie Kate Beckinsale as an S&M-costumed, badass vampire-gunslinger sounded eye-rollingly silly (her similar turn in “Van Helsing” hadn’t yet occured, either.)

Genre fans dutifully lined up and braced for the predictable dissapointment, only to find that “Underworld” was an out-of-left-field surprise; a solid, inventive and (most importantly) intelligent and serious offering that quickly jumped to the head of the action/horror pack. It had it’s problems, including a sketchy first act and some truly guffaw-worthy bad supporting performances, but these were outweighed by it’s greater goods: A smart, detail-rich script that took the genre seriously, an action-star-making turn by Beckinsale in the lead and (crucially) a self-created universe with a backstory that just begged for further exploration.

Y’see, while the studio and most critics can be forgiven for being unaware of it, any quick browse through a Role Playing convention can tell one there was a HUGE audience waiting in the wings for a serious, hard-edged action/romance/mystery/thriller about a covert world-war between Vampires and Werewolves. And when “Underworld” turned out to be that film and then some, a continuation was innevitable.

Whereas the first film was mildly hard to follow unless one had at least a sophmore-level familiarity with vampire, werewolf and fantasy/scifi lore, this direct-sequel will be nearly impossible to follow unless one is familiar with film #1. So, then, here’s where we are so far: Sometime around the 11th Century, alchemist(?) Corvinus cured himself of the plague and became immortal, a genetic abnormality which he passed to his twin sons Markus and William, who were then further mutated after being bitten by a wolf (William) and a bat (Markus), and thus “fathered” the henceforth-warring races of Vampires and Werewolves (also called “Lycans,” because it sounds niftier.) In the modern era, Lycan-exterminating vampiress Selene (Beckinsale) learned that the blood-feud had been predicated on lies, turned on her traitorous vampire clansmen and fell in love with Michael (Scott Speedman) a human descendant of Corvinus who wound up transformed into a super-strong half-vampire/half-werewolf hybrid.

Film #2 picks up literally right where that leaves off: Selene and Michael are on the run from both sides, seeking out anymore mistruths or surprise revelations about their respective pasts (hint: there’s a lot of `em.) Things get immediately worse when some leftover messiness from movie #1 serves to wake up the hibernating Markus, who embarks on a mass-mudering quest to locate and free his imprisoned brother William. Which would be bad.

Whats impressive and admirable about both films is how well they actually manage to work given such complex goings-on amid material which, less face it, is just this side of silly to begin with. Writer/Director Len Wiseman (aka Mr. Kate Beckinsale) has a clear, complete vision for his creation in tone and visual execution, and his wrangling of a cast of character-acting stalwarts into serious, straight-faced embodiments of teched-up Universal Monsters is a feat of some accomplishment. Laced among all the backstory, revelation and deepening mystery are a collection of creative, first-rate action beats; including some gorgeous gunfights, a great use of Lycan “guard dogs” and a moment of pure “comic-book” perfection where a super-strong baddie pulls a helicopter out of the sky by a rope!

The cast performs great (better than in the first) and looks even better, with Beckinsale once again the last word in bloodsucker fetishism. The monsters, too, are really just spectacular looking: Markus flies and fights by way of huge leathery bat wings, and William is probably the best-looking Werewolf to appear on film in over a decade.

Here’s the rub: The “Underworld” flicks are gory, blood-drenched showcases for a gorgeous actress in (and now occasionally out of) form-fitting leather unloading magazine after magazine of heavy ammo into scores of henchmen and big, scary monsters all well five TSR manuals-worth of backstory and exposition unfold for your absorbing pleasure. Your inner twelve year-old boy really wants to see this movie, I reccomend you let him.


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