January 29th, 2004 Film, Film Reviews, Xpress

Written and Directed by; Len Wiseman

Starring; Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman

Underworld was originally slated for release late last year and shown to critics as far back as early October until distributors Columbia Tristar realised they’d be competing with movies about things like a people living in a computer generated world and something about hobbits and rings.

But that’s what happens when you’re — as director Len Wiseman calls himself — ‘a nobody’ who only gets approval to spend US$18 million on your movie. So no $20-million-plus A list actors, private jets or world-beating CGI. And presumably it makes you a much more disciplined filmmaker.

‘Absolutely,’ Wiseman agrees. ‘The script of Underworld read as a $60 million movie. We were greenlit at 18 and it ended up costing 23 million. Compared to the movies that are out there right now that’s nothing.

‘And it was a really stressful thing for me because I knew it would be marketed no differently than Daredevil, for instance. But what it allowed me to do was know what to spend money on and what to go really cheap on.’

As maligned as Centropolis films are now (the company of producer/director duo Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, the brains behind Stargate, Independence Day and 1998’s Godzilla), even today you can’t deny the effectiveness of their production design and cinematography. From that perspective, Wiseman learnt with the best, rising through the ranks of production designer on those movies.

‘I’ve worked on a lot of the big budget movies like Independence Day and Godzilla, also stuff like Men in Black and Wild West,’ he explains, ‘and they were huge movies but what they made you realise is how to be a good ‘big budget/low budget’ director, like Roland [Emmerich]. He knew what to really take time with but also when to go low budget, so I was really conscious of that. You’ve got to try to make your money look like that of all the other movies around you.’

The one thing Wiseman and writing partner Kevin Grevioux knew they couldn’t scrimp on was their leading lady, who’d play the role of Selene, the vampire assassin sworn to rid the world of the lycans (werewolves). Enter unlikely action movie babe Kate Beckinsale.

‘We didn’t think she’d ever do it,’ Wiseman says. ‘Even though it’s about vampires and werewolves I wanted to make it a very serious film and that’s hard to do, so I wanted to get an actress who had the weight to make it a legitimate, serious role.

‘It worked out great because once we signed Kate, it did exactly what we needed it to. I read the geek websites and saw stuff like ‘Wiseman signs Beckinsale for Underworld, this guy must be taking things seriously.”

Beckinsale was obviously just as impressed with Wiseman — the pair got engaged midway through the production. It’s hard to imagine her as a black leather-clad urban warrior until you see what use the blue/black, gothic production design has made of her classical accent and pale English skin.

As Deathdealer Selene, the member of a coven of vampires in Eastern Europe, Beckinsale does indeed lend Underworld the weight Wiseman envisioned. In fact, it’s during the gaps in the action (inevitable because of the low budget) that her quiet but smouldering presence keeps the film going.

In the centuries-old war raging between vampires and lycans (werewolves) out of sight from humanity, the vampires are a sort of aristocracy, lounging in mansions and drinking blood from Champagne flutes. By contrast, the lycans are brutish and bestial, regarded as feral by their enemies.

When werewolf killer Selene notices the lycans are particularly interested in human medical student Michael (Scott Speedman, last seen as Kurt Russell’s partner in Dark Blue), she wants to know why. Her trail leads to a deep conspiracy involving the war, Michael, the vampire elders in their centuries-long regenerative sleep and both klans’ charismatic leaders.

And that’s where Underworld does a better job than most action movies around lately. Bad Boys or Charlie’s Angels it ain’t — there’s no contrived, mundane plotting simply there to bridge the gap until the next orgy of destruction. The narrative strongly underpins the movie, and the action complements it.

Neither the story nor the action are by any means the most original you’ve seen. The look and feel of Underworld borrows from every dark sci-fi or action film of recent times, including The Crow, The Matrix, The Terminator and (at times) Interview With the Vampire. And you don’t need to be a detective to work out the story before any of the characters do.

But it’s a very refreshing change to see a movie touted as an action blockbuster that not only lives up to that promise (or very close to it), but weaves an interesting tale.

Wiseman and co. have done the best they could for the money, but occasionally you can see where a higher bankroll would have encouraged Underworld to flex its muscles. There’s also a sense of the gothic sensuality bought to the vampire myth by artists from Anne Rice to Francis Ford Coppola’s (in 1992’s Dracula), and it makes Underworld a smarter cousin to straight vampire action movies like Blade.

Again, it’s a tone that could have been explored with a higher budget, but for the most part, Underworld is a rare event — a blockbuster with a brain and a heart, not just a catalogue of arbitrary bullet time rip-offs.

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