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Underworld (2003)

by on 2011/01/14

Now we are really breaking into my desert island film collection. Underworld would be in my castaway tapestry duffle bag for certain.

According to lore, director Len Wiseman met, fell in love with and later married star Kate Beckinsale who plays the pleather-clad vampire warrior Selene. After seeing this movie, let’s say 19 times to date, I think I want to marry her just a little bit as well.

This blue-black beauty of a film features one of my favourite opening sequences ever. Selene tells us her story atop a rain-slicked gothic cathedral in a long, black trench coat. Like a shimmering, gorgeous gargoyle, she looks down on a dismal Hungarian street. Pure magic.

The Underworld story centres on orphaned Selene, her family allegedly ripped to shreds by Lycans (werewolves). After the bloody deaths of everyone she loved, a great and terrible vampire leader Viktor (Bill Nighy) makes her his surrogate daughter and gives her an undead life as a vampire Death Dealer.

Bent on exterminating every Lycan she finds, Selene is a sleek, blue-eyed killing machine, the last of an old guard of warriors made increasingly obsolete by the dwindling number of Lycans wandering the streets.

Unfortunately for Selene, things in vampireland are now run by a sneering funboy Kraven (Shane Brolly), a “bureaucrat” who is more interested in impressing his vampire elders and politicking than waging war with the Lycans. Under Kraven’s rule, the coven is decadent and debauched – one long vampire sexy party.

A word or two on Kraven. If you’ve seen the movie, I think you’ll sing along as I take a moment to rage about his outfits.  What was the deal with that bedazzled, sequined shirt? Perhaps it was a bit of costuming genius to inspire hatred in the audience. You know, it worked.

However a handful of sequins can’t get in the way of my love. Back to Selene (and you know, she doesn’t like Kraven either). Mannered, deadly, driven, Selene does things with a pair of handguns that are iconic moments in film-making. She escapes a pack of wall-crawling Lycans by shooting a Selene-sized hole in the linoleum and crashing to the floor below. Epic.

Up to her lovely vinyl-enrobed shoulders in trouble, Selene’s got a lead on a pack of Lycans with new deadly weapons and some sort of nefarious scheme. They’ve shot up a subway and offed some of her fanged comrades-in-arms.

Underworld holds my top spot for some of the best werewolf transformations ever. Hulking, monolithic Lycan Raze (Kevin Grevioux) undergoes an awe-inspiring change in a subway tunnel as he battles with a vampiric Death Dealer. I don’t think a werewolf change has ever been done better. Ever. Sorry Joss Whedon and Seth Green.

The unlikely being at the centre of all the werewolf fur and vampire ashes a-flying is mere human Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman). Turns out that kindly, bland, confused Dr. Corvin has something special in his blood. Speedman turns in a kindly, bland, confused performance.

When I saw the theatrical release in the darkened cinema I couldn’t for the life of me understand Selene and Michael’s mutual attraction. Now that I’ve seen the director’s cut, with key linking footage restored including scenes where Selene and Michael swap stories of loves lost, I understood everything. Do watch the director’s cut, whatever you do.

A few words on the towering villains of this piece, Viktor (Bill Nighy) and Lycan leader Lucian (Michael Sheen). Having seen Bill Nighy as the tragicomic stepfather in Shaun of the Dead (2004), his full, terrifying inhabitation of the jerkified dark lord was a truly a thing to behold.

Lucian (Sheen), with his blazing Rasputin stare, transforms from milky-eyed boogeyman to noble freedom fighter beautifully. Brilliant, odd, fascinating performances from both Nighy and Sheen.

It is damned hard to be rational about this movie that I so love so I won’t try. Underworld and its sequels Evolution and Rise of the Lycans are similarly films I would wedge into my duffle bag for that desert island banishment or in preparation for the end of the world. I can hardly wait for more.

* * * *

Rated R for strong violence, gore and some language

121 minutes

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