Kate Beckinsale looks fabulous in her shiny black catsuit. She also looks good scowling, crouching, striding, shooting, and leaping from the tops of buildings. Shrouded in gloomy shadows and seemingly sculpted by flashing blue lights in Underworld, she plays Selene, a super-styling vampire with a centuries-old vendetta against the lycans, also known as werewolves.
Selene, of course, believes she has good reason for her eternal seething, something to do with a family slaughtered by a pack of hirsute brutes. And on that very night, she met and was turned by an Elder, that is, a pureblood vampire named Viktor (Bill Nighy, looking nearly as cadaverous as he did playing a Keith Richards-ish rock star in 1998’s Still Crazy). Since that night, as long as she can remember, Selene’s been on the hunt, determinedly finding and killing off the lycans, as she puts it, “one by one.”
Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Shane Brolly, Michael Sheen, Bill Nighy, Robbie Gee, Kevin Grevioux
US theatrical: 19 Sep 2003
At film’s opening, she spends a few long minutes solemnly narrating portions of this backstory while she looms atop a gothic style building, soaked by sheets of grey rain, her Neo-ish black trenchcoat flapping in the stormy wind. She and a fellow vampire are scouting for lycans amid a crowd of anonymous, umbrella-carrying humans on a bleak street (shot in Budapest). When they see one, they barely nod at one another, and then, utterly calmly, they drop from the roof, falling until they land like cats on their stacked heel boots, ready for fierce action. Framed by slick black hair, her face is pale and translucent, dark eyes turned icy to signal she’s shifted to killing mode (that, and a little fang). Fabulous.
For all the legend and lore in Len Wiseman’s British-German-Hungarian-U.S. co-production, the primary point is the look—the drenching rain, the blazing gunfire, the catsuit. Still, Selene’s story has a certain forward motion, or more accurately, a descending motion. Her pursuit, from that first drop off the roof, takes her underground, to loud, fast-cut encounter in a subway, and then to a dire discovery: the lycans are gathering, building numbers and strength. She overhears them as they engage in a favorite entertainment, a WWE-ish knockdown between two CGI-ed beasts, ripping one another up for a roaring, slavering audience, at least until they’re interrupted by their more enlightened leader, Lucian (Michael Sheen), who strides purposefully into close-up. “You act like a pack of rabid dogs,” he snarls, “And that, gentlemen, will not do.”
Selene does some striding of her own, on her return (in a speedy expensive vehicle) to the vampires’ hideaway, a grand, gated mansion on a hill where it is, apparently, always nighttime. She strides through parlor room where her fellows sit around sipping blood from wine glasses and smoking cigarettes in holders. Aside from the battle-focused warriors, called Death Dealers, like Selene, the vampires are a supremely self-interested lot, the effete upper class of monsters. Still, her announcement that the lycans are amassing hardly alarms Head Vampire Kraven (Shane Brolly), who’s preoccupied with an upcoming bloodsucker ritual, the joining of two covens and the resurrection of an Elder. This leads to lots of sitting around waiting for “the Awakening.”
But if Kraven is not paying attention, Selene certainly is. Looking through surveillance camera footage (accessed by her very fancy laptop), she notes the reason for the lycans’ current congregating. They’re hunting a specific human (the middle race, mostly forgotten in this film), a medical intern named Michael (Scott Speedman). Just why they want him especially won’t be too hard to figure out (especially if you’ve seen Blade, which provides a similar hierarchy of races and moral grounds, except in that case, they’re all vampires), but for Selene, it’s a wrenching emotional ordeal, as she discovers centuries’ worth of betrayals and deceptions. And, as she figures out the bizarre morality of this ancient blood feud, she also—no surprise—falls for the human, who has his own fall to perform.
Luckily, she has a comrade, Kahn (Robbie Gee), who sees to her weapons needs, including a new set of liquid silver nitrate bullets that seep into wolves’ bloodstreams as soon as they’re hit, producing a grim X-Files-y effect, dark rivulets of pain pulsing just beneath the skin. It’s worth noting that this effect occurs when the werewolves are still in human-seeming form, which they maintain even though several can “will” themselves into big menacing wolf form (these transformations tend to take too long on screen, since, like most werewolf movies, this one is rather in love with its transformation effects).
It’s also worth noting that one of these willful wolves is the ferociously pumped up (and black) Raze (Kevin Grevioux, one of the storywriters, along with Wiseman and scripter Danny McBride), especially prone to Pro Wrestling-style grunts and performances, and one of the film’s principal representatives of the lycans as an anciently wronged “slave race” (see especially, his battle with a white vampire with whips, that serve no purpose except to recall slave imagery; who fights werewolves with whips?).
For all its poor pacing and chopped up editing, Underworld does have something on its mind besides matching up its throbbing rock soundtrack to slow-motioned action sequences. While the film occasionally allows the race differences to lapse into feline-canine behavioral differences (or worse, sets up a heavy-handed Romeo and Juliet plot), the political premise—the artifice of race—is intriguing, as the coming together of these races—through miscegenation—is posited as a most terrifying and revolutionary act, thoroughly alarming the Elders who, in their infinite wisdom, regularly turn humans into faux versions of themselves, properly propagandized hench-people to perpetuate the hate and do the hard work.