It’s embarrassing to know that if I had seen Underworld at the age of 11 when it came out and I overheard some of the classmates I was desperately trying to be friends with say how cool it was, I would have loved it and thought “so awesome, man.” Instead, I am at the age of 24 when I have seen it for the first time in my life and know better than to fall for whatever faux-gothic slick leather cool wire-fu action flick comes out on the spurs of The Matrix‘s own slick leather cool wire-fu action flick success.
That’s not hyperbole. Underworld is exactly the type of movie that could only exist how it is in 2003, dated to the dot by its presence of Kate Beckinsale whuppin’ ass in tight black leather, its fascination with vampires and werewolves without real interest in using their mythology except insofar as a vehicle for bullet time sequences. It is a movie that wears its influence from Matrix and Blade on its sleeve while preceding so many women kicks ass in tight clothing movies such as Aeon Flux and basically Milla Jovovich’s entire career. The effects are that dated, with flat blood splatters, shiny and rubbery CGI, or static body prosthetics for practical werewolves. And director Len Wiseman giving the soundtrack it’s unrestrained indulgence with industrial metal and color correcting every single shoot to the steeliest of blue (which is at the least more visually pleasant than the greens of The Matrix) is part of what dates the film most. I’m serious about the industrial metal element, the score by Paul Haslinger thuds accordingly with echoes and, my hand to god, the movie shoves in a remix to A Perfect Circle’s “Judith” so eagerly it keeps certain lyrics audible, including “fuck your god”, for no other reason than it’s what the cool kids were into.
Looking cool in that early 2000s manner is exactly what Underworld is concerned with. No room for logic in a movie where the premise is as simple as an ongoing war between vampires and the werewolf Lycans rages on around vampire assassin Selene (the too-talented-for-this Kate Beckinsale in her unfortunately best-known performance). She discovers two things that must not be: that the Lycans’ leader Lucian (a never-more-hammy Michael Sheen relishing the scenery in his mouth) is alive despite the claims by vampire de facto leader Kraven (Shane Brolly) and Lucian is weirdly fixated on a medic Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman). With the alarming addition that the Lycans have weaponized UV rays into a bullet, Selene is getting close to appealing over Kraven’s obstruction to the dormant vampire superior Viktor (Bill Nighy) during her own investigation of the matter.
It barely makes sense. It doesn’t make sense for vampires and werewolves to shoot each other in subways rather than fight like monsters. It doesn’t make sense for them to be shooting at each other when they knew it wouldn’t work until they weaponize light and silver. It doesn’t make sense that the sets look European (the international production was shot in Hungary) but half of the cast – including local police and medical – speak in American accents. Selene literally has a scene talking into a mirror and it doesn’t seem like it’s necessary to break vampire mythology so.
Beckinsale and Nighy both treat this scenario with more gravity than necessary (which is why the best scenes are when they’re confronting each other), Beckinsale with a confused yet compelling icy visage in every moment, giving focus to anything that crosses her and Nighy by upping the authoritative logos (even when Viktor is clearly wrong) that he heightens like he’s in Shakespeare. Nighy’s ability to be big is aided by Sheen using the pathos of Lucian’s tragic backstory to be the loudest figure in every shot and selling it because Sheen is every bit as qualified an actor as Nighy and Beckinsale. This trilogy is what drives a ridiculous premise and bootleg goth Matrix aesthetic a good half hour than it needs to be (the film is a little under two hours).
The biggest sign of Wiseman’s poor craftsmanship of Underworld lies in two voices. Brolly is clearly attempting an American accent for his Kraven and yet there is not a second of this where he’s not obviously Irish and his laboring swallows the life out of any line readings. In the meantime, there is also the fact that Robbie Gee wears prosthetic fangs in his makeup and you hear it impede his speech in every scene he’s in and yet clearly they either didn’t bother doing ADR work on him or he was still wearing fangs during it. Why? Beats me.
Underworld‘s not trying to be a work of art. A man dies in it because his chain whip gets stuck under a rock. So I can see why people might find it trashy fun in all of the Victorian carts and overlit sewer action, but I’d be lying to say I don’t get tired of it before the halfway point and the work it goes through to complicate its plot – including how many times Michael slips between Vampire custody and Lycan custody – is alienating. It is what it is in the end and I still know kid me would have rewatched it. But kid me also had Van Helsing as a favorite movie.