Underworld: Evolution Review
What I enjoy most about the Underworld movies isn't the action or the art direction or even Kate Beckinsale in black PVC bondage gear. It's the mythology. Here's a series of films that started with a simple premise - what if vampires were at war with werewolves? - and built that concept into a hugely elaborate tale of rival clans, court intrigues, centuries-long grudges, conspiracies, treachery and patricide.
For me, that gives the Underworld saga an edge over its rivals in the sci-fi-characters-in-fetish-costumes-firing-guns-at-each-other-Hong-Kong-style genre. Those rivals include the Blade and Matrix series, which have guns and dominatrix outfits and convoluted mythologies of their own but nothing like the gothic, pseudo-Shakespearean backstory devised by Underworld writer/director Len Wiseman and his writing partner Danny McBride. Nor do they have venerable British thespians like Bill Nighy, Michael Sheen and Derek Jakobi, actors with enough gravitas to make the daftest plot exposition sound like lines from Hamlet.
If you haven't seen Underworld, you'll at a real disadvantage seeing the sequel first so here's a brief recap. In a world where vampires and Lycans (werewolves) live undetected among humans, Selene (Kate Beckinsale) was a member of an aristocratic vampire clan run by Viktor (Bill Nighy). Her clan was at war with a pack of Lycans run by Lucian (Michael Sheen) and Selene's role in the war was that of a Death Dealer, an elite assassin trained to kill werewolves. The conflict came to a head with the discovery of Michael (Scott Speedman), a human with unique DNA that could enable him to be both vampire and Lycan: an ultimate hybrid. The Lycans wanted his blood. The vampires wanted him dead. Unfortunately Selene, sent to kill Michael, fell in love with him instead. Then, learning that the clan she had protected for six centuries was a depraved nest of backstabbers, Selene took on both them and the Lycans. With the help of the newly changed and super-powerful Michael, she emerged victorious.
Did you follow all that? If you didn't, I'm afraid you're stuffed because it doesn't get any simpler. Underworld: Evolution begins almost immediately after the first film ends. Selene and Michael are on the run together, fearing reprisals from both vampires and Lycans. Michael is only starting to come to terms with his new, inhuman nature - he's suspiciously like a blue version of the Incredible Hulk. The couples' lives are made even more complicated by the reawakening of Marcus (Tony Curran), the oldest and most powerful vampire. Marcus wants to re-unite with his brother William, who is the oldest and most powerful werewolf, and he needs Selene to help find him.
There's a lot more plot and some of it doesn't make much sense. We meet Marcus and William's father, who is also apparently immortal but how? Marcus is immortal because he was bitten by a bat. William is immortal because he was bitten by a wolf. So what was their dad bitten by? Or is he just naturally immortal? Some of the plot makes no sense at all, like the ending. We see something happen, then we hear some narration warning that there will now be much in-fighting among the clans (an obvious set-up for Underworld 3). Well, judging by what we just saw happen, there shouldn't be any more clans to in-fight, should there?
Never mind. I'm becoming more tolerant of plot holes because at least they're evidence that there is a plot, something you can't always count on from action blockbusters. When I say you won't find plot holes in Fantastic Four, that's not a compliment. Underworld: Evolution has more than enough going on between action sequences to keep your brain doing more than just feasting on eye candy.
The eye candy by the way is second to none. Len Wiseman, his cinematographer Simon Duggan and the technical crew have delivered a truly stunning-looking film. You find yourself admiring shot after shot. Okay, Wiseman may be yet another action director calling attention to all his shots but he brings a real artist's eye to the party. He does a good job on the action scenes too. Although they're fairly generic in concept (gunfights, werewolf attacks, a winged creature chasing a truck), they're extremely well executed and they provide the thrills missing from too many of today's action movies.
Not everyone likes Underworld. There are many who claim the films are unwatchable crap and who lump Len Wiseman in with hacks like Paul WS Anderson and McG. There's a debate on the subject over at the DVD Forums which has run for 10 pages, only the last one of which is devoted to whether that's really Kate Beckinsale's nude body in the sex scene (it is) and whether you can see her puppies (you can't). Without wanting to spark another round of "It sux!" / "No it r00ls!", I would like to address one criticism that I think is unfair - that Underworld takes itself too seriously. I don't think it does. The Matrix takes itself too seriously. Underworld is intended to be fun but in a very straight-faced, deadpan way. It's deliberately, knowingly mock-Shakespearean and if you can get a kick out of that, there's a lot of enjoyment to be had. I can and I find the intrigue of Underworld and the solemn utterings of its characters far more entertaining than the lame wisecracks of Fantastic Four.
You may have noticed Underworld: Evolution has received an 18 certificate from the British Board of Film Classification. They don't hand out many of those anymore, not to mainstream films anyway. The film is certainly violent and bloody and it has an awful lot of impalings in it. However it's very much comic book violence, with little in the way of consequences. Few people actually die in this film and besides, they aren't technically people. Even the impalings don't have consequences. In an Underworld movie, a character can get speared through the stomach with a stake the width of a goalpost and be back on his feet in what seems like a matter of hours. As for smaller impalings, stabbings and gunshots? As a certain Black Knight once said, 'tis but a scratch.