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Underworld’ strikes a vein

C. Spencer Beggs | Tuesday, October 7, 2003

What do you get when you cross a werewolf and a vampire?

Most people would probably go with “werepire.” And throughout the two-hour runtime of Underworld, that seemingly inevitable punch line looms over the screenplay like the Sword of Damocles. Fortunately, writer and director Len Wiseman prudently keeps the camp and self-indulgence out of his film.

Underworld is the story of an ancient blood feud between the shadowy worlds of vampires and werewolves. For the better part of a millennium, the two clans have been engaged in a battle to eradicate each other. Six hundred years ago, the vampires scored a key victory against the lycans when they burned the werewolves’ lair and killed their fearsome leader, Lucian.

In the following centuries, the vampires have dedicated themselves to hunting down and killing the scattered and disorganized lycans. But in the 21st century, the werewolves start organizing again with the help of a mysterious leader and hatch a plot of create crossbreed vampire-werewolf thing, which we won’t call a werepire, to destroy the vampire coven once and for all.

Enter Selene (Kate Beckinsale): She’s a vampire “death dealer” hell-bent on hunting down the remaining rouge lycans while wearing this year’s trendiest leather fashions. Enter Michael (Scott Speedman): He’s an attractive, young and very available doctor.

Their eyes meet across the hellish rain of bullets. There’s a spark. Alas, he’s been bitten by a werewolf and only has two days until he becomes her hated enemy and perhaps transformed into that very non-werepire weapon.

Oh, cruel fate! Was there ever a tale of such woe?

OK, the story isn’t all that original or compelling. But Underworld does paint an entertaining picture of the vampire and lycan worlds. Wiseman strays from traditional supernatural explanations of vampires and werewolves and keeps the account strictly scientific. Vampirism and lycanthropy are caused viruses that transmute humans into monstrous nightstalkers with respective allergies to sunlight and silver; no turning into bats, no burns from holy water.

Wiseman’s vampires are pretty politically correct. They have a policy of not feeding on humans. In fact, the coven controls a company that produces synthetic blood. They live in a rigid, high-society world of petty politics and bourgeois bureaucracy, which apparently involves throwing a lot of sexy pajama parties. The lycans, on the other hand, are brutish and savage, living in dark subterranean tunnels and sewers where they wallow in the blood of their victims and scrap with each other.

Although the film is a bit shallow in some places, it is refreshing to see an action movie where the players are actually bounded by some laws of physics. Action movies like The Matrix, Blade, Terminator 3 and Hulk wear a little thin on the suspension of disbelief because everyone in them is an atrocious shot with automatic weapons and, even when they do manage to hit their targets, they’re all bulletproof anyway.

Underworld harkens back to the heyday of good action movies when bullets were a scary things and getting hit by bullets was a problem. Like Schwarzenegger said in Predator, “If it bleeds, we can kill it.”

For Wiseman’s debut as a director, he shows a remarkable eye for detail and does a great job with the ambiance of the vampire and lycan underworlds, though he borrows generously from films like Blade, Interview With the Vampire and The Matrix. Then again, everything is starting to look a little bit like The Matrix nowadays.

Despite its intellectual mediocrity and perfunctory acting, Wiseman is able to wheedle a decent, if mildly forgettable action flick out of Underworld.

Contact C. Spencer Beggs at [email protected]