Underworld (2003)

Rating: ****
Release Date: 9/18/03
Director: Len Wiseman
Art Director: Steve Wang
Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Michael Sheen, Shane Brolly, Bill Nighy

Kate Beckinsale with guns.

What more needs to be said? Well, I guess there is a story there too. After nearly a year of disappointing and lackluster films, "Underworld" strikes at the action film audience with a vengeance, in what is easily the best and most entertaining film I've seen in years. Now, by "best" I don't necessarily mean that it's "good", but I haven't left a movie with such a smile on my face and a skip in my step since "Charlie's Angels" (2000). It's modern day, and the vampires are at war with the werewolves. The feud between the two races has been going on for centuries, with the human race knowing little to nothing about it. But things are changing and the Lycans are starting to take action in public, which puts a vampire warrior named Selene (mind blowing Kate Beckinsale) on a trail of mystery and deceit. Unfortunately, the decadent vampire elite don't care for her conspiracy theories and nosing around, so it's up to her alone to put down a Lycan uprising.

Kate Beckinsale in black leather. With guns.

The film is a sheer delight to watch, and an adolescent wet dream fantasy for anyone with a girls and guns fetish. Filmed entirely in the dark through blue filters, the film feels cold, dark, and foreboding. Everything looks and feels sinister, including the characters, costumes, architecture, and camera angles. Kate Beckinsale, who I've always dismissed as a girly-girl actress who only acts in films I'd never see, completely floored me. She handles a gun with unflinching authority and projects intensity and cold hatred with intoxicating results. She wears a constant scowl, and her cold, dark eyes are perfectly complemented by the arch of her seductively sinister eyebrows. She's strong willed and independent, and everything about her says BITCH, which I find oddly exciting. Her action scenes are superb, and she displays a subtly effective combination of fear and excitement, while never losing her professional and no-nonsense attitude earned by centuries of war and slaughter. She has one excellent fight scene that left me begging for more, and her stuntwork is beautifully graceful. She is utterly flawless in this film.

Kate Beckinsale in black leather with kick-ass boots. And guns.

Apart from her, the rest of the cast does a fine job of being dark and moody, and Lucian (Micheal Sheen) makes an excellent sympathetic villain. Bill Nighy adds a touch of class with his commanding portrayal of Viktor, and Shane Brolly is detestable as the spineless Kraven. The action scenes are excellently staged and performed, the sets and cinematography are beautiful, and the characters are all glamorously charismatic. There is gothic goodness to be found in every frame.

Like any vampire movie in the last 10-15 years, common vampire lore has been radically altered to support the framework of the film. In "Underworld", vampires cast reflections and have no aversion to water, which the director forcefully presents up front. They're also not presented as predators, and seem to prefer bottled blood over the real thing. Werewolves have evolved to the point where they can change at will without the aid of the full moon, which naturally makes them a much more interesting enemy. Both vampirism and lycanthrope are clinically explained as viruses, but the nature of what sustains a vampire's life force is left unclear. While I don't care much for the high society aspects of vampire aristocracy (and neither does Selene), the costumes are all wonderfully elegant, and saturate the screen with style and glamour.

As much as I enjoyed it, the film definitely has some rough spots and is laughably silly in several places. First, it's unclear why the vampires' eyes sometimes change color, other than to just look creepy. Then there's the big black werewolf whose voice is downright preposterous. Towards the end, there's a potentially cool whip fight that's reduced to nothing but a flashy kata with no real interaction between the players. The conservation of ammunition rules are blatantly defied in this film, and Selene's handguns manage to rattle off about 50 rounds before needing to be reloaded. While it's a minor complaint, it's also laughably absurd while you're watching the film. While I absolutely loved Selene's action scenes, I was particularly disappointed by two things. First, her one and only fight scene is brilliant, but way too short. I want to see more!!! And secondly, the final showdown builds to an intense samurai styled climax, but instead of seeing Selene kick major vampire ass, the film opts for a cheap and easy way out (which elicited unintentional laughter from the entire audience). That was a real letdown for me, but at least it didn't compromise Selene's character. Anyone who likes vampires, fantasy, horror, or action films owes it to themselves to check out this modern masterpiece of female action filmmaking.