Underworld ★½

I’d previously only watched a few minutes of Underworld a decade ago, on TV, with a friend who snarked that we should do a shot every time Kate Beckinsale sashayed into (or flounced out of) a room. That distant memory sprang to mind 12 minutes into the unrated extended cut on Blu-ray. And twice more at 14 minutes in. And again at 24 minutes in. And…yeah, that drinking game would probably make this movie increasingly more amusing, until it actually killed you.

Underworld opens with a looooong voice-over. The lore-dump narration is so extensive that it made me wonder if I’d mistakenly pulled one of the later sequels from the box set I was suddenly regretting having impulse-purchased. I liked the fourth film, Awakening, despite its many flaws and had at least hoped for similarly brainless fun, but this first film was a real slog.

To begin with, these vampires—sorry, vampyres—are, wait for it, different. They are “immortals” evolved from a plague virus rather than supernatural undead. Not only do they cast reflections, but they come fully-equipped with working respiratory, circulatory, and reproductive systems. Their higher-level functioning is a bit suspect, though. Twice in this film we see a coven of vampyres, whose implacable enemies in a centuries-long war are werewolves (sorry, lycans), schedule a major political ceremony to coincide with a full moon. You’d think that after 600 years that would be a faux pas in vampyre society at least on the level of wearing white after Labor Day (or, like…ever). I’m being glib, but as a fan of “urban fantasy” long before that genre acquired a specific and highly gendered stigma, I was not won over by Underworld’s elaborate but flimsy world-building. In retrospect White Wolf’s lawsuit claiming copyright infringement over this movie is a little sad. Hopefully they were doing it for the cash or the publicity, rather than from a sincere belief that their World of Darkness setting was indistinguishable from this generic mash-up.

Nerd-rage aside, I truly don’t care that Underworld is blatantly derivative and pandering; I do mind that Kate Beckinsale’s tactical corset and machine pistol are damn near the only things of interest in the movie, with action as illegible or incoherent as the narrative, poorly staged and choppily edited to show too little or far, far too much.

It is fun to watch Michael Sheen and Bill Nighy nosh on the scenery (and occasionally their costars), but otherwise the acting is a dull affair. Beckinsale is given a fabulous outfit and a theoretically fascinating character, but the actual role is a blandly traditional action lead, oscillating between taciturn and pensive as the script requires, with only a handful of moments to suggest that the character (or actor) has any depth. Scott Speedman is very pretty as the damsel in distress, and even gets to show a bit of pluck despite his uselessness, the poor dear. Shane Brolly as the beta-male vampyre Kraven (cringe) is, depending on your viewpoint, either disastrously cast, or perfect for the part. He resembles not so much John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, as John Travolta’s stand-in from Pulp Fiction, possessing neither charisma nor menace. Brolly typifies much of Underworld: he has the right look at first glance, but can’t pull it off for very long.

Final doorway drinking game tally: up to 19, depending on how loosely you count; see for yourself.

(Part of Selene and Alice go shooting.)

James liked these reviews