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With the success of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, its not surprising that flicks like Underworld, which dredge up classic monsters and spin them into modern context, are being chucked at us.

The basic premise has potential; vampires and werewolves are entrenched in a centuries old war, which the vampires seem on the verge of winning. The leather and vinyl clad vampires are eradicating the last of the werewolves, or Lycans as they're called, one by one.

Our heroine is Selene, played by Kate Beckinsdale, a vampire warrior and werewolf hunter, who lives (so to speak) for the thrill of the chase. Till now an unquestioning soldier, Selene rescues a human named Michael from the Lycans, and uncovers a plot affecting vampires and werewolves alike.

Fledgling director Len Wiseman, along with writers Kevin Grevioux and Danny McBride have sown the wind, but failed to cultivate a whirlwind. Though there are several well-choreographed action scenes, the dialog and the performances are pretty much crap. The story moves well enough, with well-placed and for the most part relevant action sequences, but the characters are underwritten and over-acted, straining their credibility.

Beckinsdale's Selene is a driven single-minded hunter whose outlook on her place in the war is clear. She hunts, she kills, she wears black leather corsets. In the course of a routine Lycan-slay, Selene discovers the double whammy of improved weapons, and increased numbers, neither of which the Lycans are supposed to have. She takes this information back to the vampire's stately manor, where she's promptly told to change into a filmy black evening dress and decorate the arm of Kraven, the vamp-in-charge.

Deducing that the Lycans she had stalked were in fact stalking prey of their own, she skips the sexy gown (much to the collective dismay of the manly types in the audience) and goes off in search of their target, a hospital intern named Michael. The trailers play up the romance between these two, but I failed to see any real chemistry. Beckinsdale is so cold, not even tasty Scott Speedman can warm her up.

Back at the castle, Kraven, nursing an obsession with Selene, is clearly up to no good. It's obvious by the way he struts and frets and generally chews scenery, that he's a "bad guy." However, it's impossible to take him seriously because he's clearly an incompetent leader. It makes no sense for him to be in charge.

The movie presents a world where vampires are the moneyed upper class, and werewolves are the oppressed rebels fighting for survival. There are themes of racism and classism running through, and love caught in the middle. Standard Romeo and Juliet stuff, but it's hard for the audience to choose sides.

Both are monsters and killers, and neither seem to show any concern for human life. In the first shoot out between vamps and Lycans, bullets hit walls and bystanders more often than their intended targets. I would have liked to see more involvement from the human world, if only to provide a contrast. Yes, vampires are decadent and Lycans earthy, but where's the moral division?

The acting in Underworld is flat out dreadful. With the exception of overly calm Beckinsdale, the cast snarls, pants, and slinks its way through scene after scene. I can't really blame them though. It's clear from the uniformity of the performances that they were guided by an inexperienced director. Even veteran actor Bill Nighy, as Selene's vampire mentor Viktor, delivers lines meant to be poignant in a manner that elicits giggles.

I will say, though, that the flick looks pretty cool. Shot in Prague and the subways of Budapest, it has a cold, colorless atmosphere, which gives it the same noir-ish feel of Dark City. The vampires, as the well-dressed (if monochrome) elite, live in a sinister castle with high towers and velvet-draped rooms. The hunted Lycans roam through sewers and subway tunnels, their headquarters an old WWII bunker.

The action sequences are also nifty, though it gets tiresome that whenever a character does something acrobatic, it gets put into slow motion. They're supernatural, they do cool flippy things, we get it! Their take on the werewolf transformation is refreshing, and the CGI Lycans are actually kinda scary.

It's telling that the two strongest points of the film are the art direction and the action sequences. The director's only previous movie credits are as a property assistant, and the screenwriter is a stunt coordinator. Underworld very clearly sets up both a prequel and a sequel, and I don't doubt at least one will get made. Let's just hope that the production team learns that it takes more than action and scenery to tell a story.


Marin Carpenter

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