Underworld is not a great love story. Nor is it a great vampire film, nor a werewolf film, nor an action film. Decide this now, because this isn't so much a review as a precaution, as there is a lot to enjoy about Underworld if your expectations aren't aimed too highly, or geared toward anything new.
The film essentially tells the story of the centuries-long war between the graceful, decadent Vampires and the wildly brutish Lycans, which, in itself, is a downright mouth-watering idea to any fan of these respective genres. And while what we are given isn't up to the potential of its concept, the simple Romeo & Juliet meet Blade spin-off story is enough, in the end, to enjoy without feeling cheated.
Fashioned after Shakespeare's infamous Capulets and Montagues, these two clans fear the combination of their lines more than anything else, or so it would seem at the film's beginning. So when the character of Selene (played by Kate Beckinsale), a vampiric Death Dealer whose role in life is the destruction of the Lycans, finds some affectation for a wolf-bitten human (Scott Speedman), the greater plot unfolds from there. But be not fooled; the love-story quality of the film if secondary to the larger war and its ensuing action.
There are elements here of greatness, little plot points and visual touches that make this war and its obfuscated history so wonderfully appealing, and if only they weren't buried beneath such a thick blanket of the ordinary, Underworld might just have been an extraordinary film. Thankfully, however, the epic nature of the story is surprisingly rich with historic detail and finely formed motivations for each specific clan, but falters in the sense that while the past and the present are so nicely developed, one gets the distinct impression that there is no middle-distance. By the film's conclusion, we are cemented nicely in the present battle and have a great understanding of the war's origin, but have no sense of the conflict that has fallen in the centuries between.
And the characters largely mimic this approach, with Selene especially drawing her strength from a barely-glimpsed past. She was once a human and is now a Death Dealer and that, apparently, is all we need know. The growth between is seemingly incidental, and were this character portrayed by a less delightful actress, it might very well have fallen as heavy and flat as a coffin lid. Speedman, as well, is a character about whom we know little and who reveals even less, with a near absence of dialogue by which to develop the man about whom we must care enough to watch our heroine save. And while his performance isn't lacking, there's simply not enough there to be good. What saves the day, however, is a truly remarkable performance from the Lycan leader, Lucian, who leads his clan with a perfect combination of Vampire eloquence and werewolf savagery.
Visually, the film is very reminiscent of similar comic book-style efforts, using a washed-out, blue and white palate on which the crimson of spilt blood plays nicely off the skin. Every shadow is a thickening dark as the dim lights reflect sensually off the shapely leather outfits of our heroes and villains. Each action sequence, while well staged, is an abuse of slow motion gun fighting and high-flying wire-fu and is everything what we've seen for the last several years. The soundscape is abrasive and overcrowded with noise, shoving in a multitude of ambient sounds and harsh rock music where none is seemingly necessary.
Overall, there is simply nothing new going on in the world of Underworld, but what is presented is presented in the spirit of pure popcorn fun. So while the film might stand as a genre retread with wasted potential, there is still plenty of the same old stylized action to enjoy, if that happens to be your thing. If not, however, the ticking clock toward this October's horror buffet is fortunately ever closer to its goal.