REVIEW: Ultraviolet (2006)

The opening credit’s of “Ultraviolet” run over a montage of ersatz comic book covers, imagining the titular heroine as part of some long-pedigree superhero franchise, accompanied by a portion of the (otherwise excellent) score that sounds far too similar to the “Spider-Man” theme music to be coincidental. It’s a pretty obvious attempt, either by director Kurt Wimmer or (more likely) the producers to tie the film in to the enduring success of movies based on graphic novels. Interestingly, it’s the last time the film is attempting to emulate the four-color page: It’s true inspiration seems to be the realm of video games, right down to it’s “mission-oriented” story structure and gleeful fetishism over the heroine’s arsenal of nifty high-tech toys.

Wimmer showed up almost literally out of nowhere three years back as the director of “Equilibrium,” a low-budget scifi actioner that raised eyebrows among genre fans in limited release and became a cult mini-phenomenon on DVD. Why? It turned out that what had been promoted as yet another “Matrix”-also-ran was actually a startlingly-intelligent, action-heavy 21st century updating of the 1984/Fahrenheit 411/Brave New World model; a brazen anti-Prozac allegorical fable cast with top-drawer talent (Christian Bale, Emily Watson, Taye Diggs and more) and martial-arts/gunplay sequences so gorgeous one could be forgiven for assuming they were watching an actual Hong Kong import.

All that “Equilibrium”-generated goodwill among scifi afficionados has made “Ultraviolet,” Wimmer’s long-delayed follow-up, the subject of unusual anticipation for a mid-budget genre flick. The extra attention will probably help the film out in the short-term, but may backfire in the long run: The fans who rightly regard “Equilibrium” as one of the best scifi films of the last couple decades may be let down to find that “Ultraviolet” is “only” a good, but not great, genre entry.

It might not help that the setting, tone and backstory bear more than a passing resemblance to Wimmer’s prior work: The story once again is a futuristic action/adventure featuring a lone killing-machine hero versus the legions of a pharmaceutical-connected facist government. Briefly: An experiment to harness Vampirism (really!) as a combat-enhancement serum instead unleashed a viral plague that turns people into super-powered, fanged “Hemophages.” The medical industry, controlling the science needed to prevent the disease, has seized power via The Arch-Ministry, a particularly nasty Big Brother organization who’s archictecture all looks like an unsubtle mixture of Facism and Catholicism (get it?) and who’ve forcefully turned the Hemophages into an oppressed minority (blunt visual allusions to the Holocaust? Check.)

In the story-proper, the Hemophage rebels are at war with Vice Cardinal (get it?) Daxus, (Nick Chinlund) the germophobic head of the Arch-Minstry. In the middle is Violet (Milla Jovovich) a Hemophage gunslinger with a grudge who’s stumbled into custody of a mysterious child (Cameron Bright) who may or may not be walking aroudn with a hemophagia cure in his bloodstream.

As I said, it’s basically a video game: Violet has to protect, rescue and ferry the kid through wave after wave of heavily-armed enemies en-route to the innevitable final showdown with Daxus. And for the most part, that really is enough in terms of giving Wimmer room to show off his creativity in inventing scifi weaponry (Violet’s hair and clothing change colors like a mood-ring, a special belt lets her bend gravity to walk and motorcycle on walls, and “flat space” technology lets her hide hundreds of guns and swords shrunk-down inside tiny bracelets) and his still frighteningly good skill at directing action setpeices.

The problem is, sad to say, the film lacks the principal element that makes better examples of this genre (like “Equilibrium”) a cut above: The script. It’s not that Wimmer has turned in a poor screenplay this time around, it’s that he’s loaded up a gorgeous-looking movie with an average, “been-there” story and dialogue that doesn’t exactly crackle with life. The cast makes do with what they’re given: Jovovich is a natural action-goddess, right down the the throaty delivery and the healthily curvy physique. Chinlund chews the scenery like a madman. Bright isn’t given much to do but look confused and uncomfortable, but considering we’re watching this kid essentially being PAID to stand at eye-level with Milla Jovovich’s bare midriff for the duration of the shoot, he must be a great actor to not be grinning ear-to-ear in every single shot.

The film comes to life in it’s action scenes, which are fortunately frequent. Wimmer has, obviously, enough imagination for such material to fill dozens of these films, and he’s here restrained only by the budget (much of the exterior CGI shots are simply MUCH too Playstation-looking.) Worth the price of admission are a (literally) gravity-warping opening scene and a battle in total darkness illuminated only by the light of the combatant’s FLAMING SWORDS. He understands that greatness is in the details: A baddie whipping out a samurai sword with a serated edge… Violet rapid-firing an uzi and using the superheated gun-metal to cauterize a wound (BAD-ASS!)… and a great moment cribbed with affection from “Lone Wolf & Cub” that may earn Wimmer a high-five the next time he passes Quentin Tarantino on the street.

The final product suffers from a distinct lack of “kick” to it’s more heavily-violent scenes, perhaps confirmation of the rumored cutting from an R to a PG-13 that gossipmongers are claiming has Wimmer in a bad mood. Oddly enough, this gives me a bit of positive hope: That kind of cutting innevitably begets an “Unrated Director’s Cut!!!” DVD, which may give Wimmer the opportunity to smooth out some of the rougher edges in other respects. As it stands right now, we’ve got a solid, diverting but underwhelming actioner from a filmmaker we know is capable of better.

But at least it’s better than “Aeon Flux.”


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