A film review by Craig J. Koban

UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION j
½ 

2005, R, 105 mins.

 

Kate Beckinsale: Selene / Scott Speedman: Michael / Tony Currun: Marcus / Derek Jacobi: Cornivus / Bill Nighy: Viktor

 

Written by Danny McBride / Directed by Len Wiseman

UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION made me feel like one of the undead while I watched it.  It stirred in me sensations of wanting to go home, take a long hot shower, and cleanse myself of its grime-infested mediocrity. 

Actually – and perhaps more aptly described – the film sank its ravenous teeth into my neck and all but sucked the life right out of me.  I do not have anything personally against a good horror film with a high, visceral gore factor - if done just right.  Yet, UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION is so over-stylized, so dark, so murky, so monotone, and so lacking in any serious creative juices that I basically felt...well...dirty sitting through it.

The film, as with its 2003 prequel, largely concerns a world where vampires and werewolves do not peacefully co-exist and that a centuries-old war has been brewing between them, without an end in sight.  By the time the end credits rolled by, with a not-so-subtle hint that further hostilities – and unavoidable and inevitable sequels – were eminent, I think that I was not the only one that felt that a mediator desperately needed to be brought in to make these two sets of creatures just get over it and get on with it.  If the NHLPA and team owners can come to a mutually agreeable set of conditions to peacefully coexist after over a year of bitter negotiations that approximated verbal warfare, then you'd think that there would be hope for vampires and werewolves...but never mind.

I have incredibly vague memories of the original UNDERWORLD, a sleeper hit when it was released.  Actually – I will be honest – I don’t have one distinct memory of any scene, any line of dialogue, or any distinctive character from that film.  So, in hindsight, these feelings alone meant that my time with UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION would be highly dubious.  Okay, I do remember one thing from the first film – Kate Beckinsale was too unapologetically gorgeous to be taken seriously as a “death dealer” who happens to be a vampire that is dressed all in leather and looks like a Marilynn Manson groupie.  She just looks too pristine to be a credible action hero.  In the first film she looked sensational, but beyond her luminous facade she lacked veracity.  Imagine a different woman with gusto and a gnarly, teeth-clenching ferocity, like a Sigorney Weaver or an Angela Bassett, as a vampire and you'll start to see what I mean.

However, the problems with that film were many outside of the miscasting of Beckinsale – like the way the film just made me not give a gosh darn about anyone or anything that was happening in it.  You’d think that there would be a much more compelling and intrinsically fascinating story to be told about werewolves and vampires.  Yet, maybe I am deluding myself.  Has the cinema been so bereft of original ideas and content that it feels the need to go back to the well – yet again – with another yarn of bloodsuckers and night stalkers?  Has the cinema and popular fiction not told us everything we need to know about vampires and werewolves already?

Perhaps more than anything, someone needed to bite some charisma and charm into the lead actors themselves.  Beckinsale – as stated – can be as alluring as anyone on the silver screen, but her role as Selene subverts any amount of allure and vitality she could have had.  We see her in those super tight outfits that obviously occur in the fantasies of many fanboys that still live in their parent’s basements and play way too much Dungeon’s and Dragons, but that’s all her character amounts to.  She’s all visage; Selene facilitates masculine fantasies for a bad-ass girl to look like a sex kitten off of the covers of FHM, but any attempt to infuse any vitality into her character seems largely vacant.  She mumbles and stoically offers up her lines with a Keanu Reeves-esque droll that lacks energy.  If that was not bad enough her partner comes in the form of Scott Speedman, a B-grade actor who looks good with his shirt off and does very little but grunt, groan, show some teeth, and bite and claw his way through his part.  He's horrendously miscast and never truly frightening. 

Selene – if you did not watch the first film – fell for Michael in an illicit kind of way.  He was a human that was bitten by a “lycan” (geez…call them what they are for cripe’s sake….a werewolf!).  Obviously, this would make for some kinky speculation as to what bedroom relations between these two creatures would, in fact, be like.  Well, UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION does not disappoint in this capacity.  The two do get it on in a short scene of carnal, vampire/werewolf pleasure.  This scene, of course, occurs after a lot of boring and plodding exposition, characters that come and go and seem to mean very little, and a hell of a lot of blood and guts CGI mayhem.  By this time I became so innately jaded and disinterested in the whole proceedings that I decided to engage in one of two actions (a) I could check my watch feverously and whine and complain about how I wanted out of the theatre as quickly as possible  or  (b) I could let my infantile impulses get the better of me and mentally jump up in the cinema and cry out, “I want some hard core nudity and gratuitous sex ASAP!”  In an immature fashion, I chose the latter.

Well, as luck would have it, and by about the fifth check of my watch, Mr. Speedman did – in fact – start to unzip Ms. Beckinsale’s beyond form fitting attire and the two started writhing around on a cold floor doing what only comes naturally to werewolves and vampires who truly need a little R & R.  The scene, unfortunately, lasts for what seems like a minute, which precluded me to make one painful conclusion about UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION – beyond it’s one minute sequence of animalistic sensuality, the film is about 104 minutes too long for its 105 minute running time.

Okay, seriously, as for the story itself, it actually is considerably denser than I have let on, which is not necessarily a good thing.  Whereas the first film introduced us to the universe of the werewolf/vampire war and the characters of Selene and Michael, this sequel tries to further that mythos and deal with the history and evolution of the war.  Again, in case you forgot the first film, Selene engages in a bitter and all-to-personal vampire war on the werewolves who killed her family in the 1600’s (yup – vampires in this film are immortal, as in other similar stories).  This sequel takes place shortly after the events of its first film with Selene and Michael on the run after killing the nemesis from the first film – Victor (the delightfully hammy and overwrought Bill Nighy).  Obviously, this left the door wide open for another dastardly villain for our two heroes to overcome.  In this film he comes in the form of Marcus (Tony Curan) a vampire that’s – wow – even older than Victor himself! 

Just when you thought that things could not get any worse for Selene and Michael, it soon turns out that Marcus has – are you ready for this – a twin brother that, though an astronomically amazing coincidence, was the very first werewolf!  Gosh!  Who would have figured!?  Basically, the film spends a lot of its time providing this painfully simple-minded concept in the most laborious and convoluted way, almost to the point where any virginal member of the audience of the UNDERWORLD series would start to throw up their hands, check their watch feverously, and want to jump up and cry out, “I want some hard core nudity and gratuitous sex ASAP!” 

So, films like this are only as good as their respective villains.  Marcus is so murky and mysterious that we never really appreciate his vileness, nor do we ever get a clearly delineated plot regarding what the hell he really wants to achieve (I think it’s something vague like world domination or a desire to be a god…something like that).  Anyhoo’, soon we are introduced to perhaps the only interesting figure in the whole film in the form of Corvinus (the usually dependable Derek Jacobi) who turns out to be the father of both Marcus and William.  Obviously, everything will come down to an unavoidable battle with endless scenes of machine gun fire, MATRIX-inspired (okay, oftentimes blatantly plagiarized from THE MATRIX) gravity-defying kung-fu, and lot of fangs dripping with blood and gore.  This is all mixed in with even more scenes of pixalized monsters and death via all things gruesome and vile.  As for how vile?  Two words: helicopter blades. 

We get all of this mindless and completely inane action that tries to pin itself on a plot of significance and importance (themes of races getting alone try to creep in here and there, but it really gets lost among all of the biting and slashing).  Sequences of gruesome and kinetic bloodshed are shot with that mind-numbing, MTV inspired penchant for quick editing and frantic camera work that it's often really difficult to see who is fighting who and at what cost.  UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION also lacks one vital ingredient in horror/thriller genre – it’s simply not thrilling or scary.  After you see Michael and Selene easily dispose of enemy after enemy you start to realize that there is essentially nothing that can really harm them in any meaningful way.  Even when one’s fate seems utterly doomed, we get a quick and anti-climatic reveal that these creatures can’t ever really be killed and stay killed.  Honestly, where’s the tension in the final battle with Marcus when you know that Selene and Michael are seemingly unstoppable?

On top of the repetitive and derivative action scenes, the film has a terrible proclivity to be slavish to a narrative that’s overstuffed and clogged with too much exposition and character flashbacks and back stories.  It soon becomes a very confusing film for those of us who don’t feel at home in the UNDERWORLD universe.  If you are like me and don’t really recall the first film in any discernable detail, then following (or for that matter, investing) in EVOLUTION will obviously become an exercise in futility.  By the time the story finally starts to unravel and go beyond it’s speeches of blood feuds, wars that have raged for hundreds of years, and so on and so on…I just began to care less and less.  Even the endless parade of beheadings, torn-out internal organs and blood and internal matter spraying everywhere just kind of lost even a modest amount of sick appeal.  I guess that if you’ve seen one werewolf battle a vampire, then you’ve clearly seen them all.

UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION is a film that is more dead on arrival than it should be.  Vampires, at least in terms of literature and even some films, have always been captivating personas.  The themes that touch these tortured souls like immortality, god-like complexes that occur as a result, and other underlying issues of loneliness and inner despair and dread seem paramount in the best of the vampire stories.  Francis Ford Coppola’s BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA and Neil Jordon’s INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE knew this impeccably.  Those films understood that the more enthralling and interesting stories could be told at investigating into the psychology, motivation, and mindset of the vampire.  The UNDERWORLD films seem to drain out any interest we could have had in these monsters and instead feeds us up brainless action.  You’d think that with the abilities and miraculous powers that are granted to vampires that having them even bother to use machine guns or learn martial arts would seem unnecessary.  Oh, but it does serve a purpose to showcase Beckinsale and all of her assets as she slices and dices through her enemies. 

Watching an actress of such potential in drivel like this is unreservedly depressing.   Perhaps even more disturbing is how a talent like Beckinsale continues to allow herself to be corrupted into being in one wretched film after another.  Just look at her recent resume of stinkers: PEARL HARBOR (2001), SERENDIPITY (2001), UNDERWORLD (2003), VAN HELSING (2004), and now UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION.  Someone frantically needs to contact her agent.  She has one noble spot on her resume playing Ava Gardner in Martin Scosese’s THE AVIATOR in 2004, but she needs more exposure and work in small supporting roles like that and must avoid B-grade heroines without interest like Selene before it erodes her credibility altogether.

UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION is the very epitome of disposable entertainment – it’s loud, crude, violent, and pretends to be something of substance when all it rally cares about is simple-minded action sequences that beat you over the head senselessly with malodorous redundancy.  And at the heart of it all is the beautiful and charming Kate Beckinsale, who is so reduced down here as a porcelain-looking, gothic-dressed hero without a glimmer of personality, wit, or allure that you have to smack yourself upside the head and decide who to root for.  If you loved the first UNDERWORLD then you will most likely feel your needs facilitated with UNDERWORLD EVOLUTION.  All of the rest of us should stay away…very far away.  Actually, this sequel’s title is a large misnomer.  The film is not really evolutionary in any real way.  When all is said and done, there is not one hint of intelligent design in it.

And - if that was not the final nail in the coffin - the film does not have nearly enough hard-core nudity and gratuitous sex.  Dammit, anyway!

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