- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 18, 2003

Every few years Hollywood brings either werewolves or vampires out of hibernation. The new “Underworld” takes that recycling process to the next logical step: it combines the two genres to pit one undead beast against another.

What happens when the lycanthropes square off against the bloodsuckers?

Apparently, each side uses a lot of automatic weaponry to settle the score. Why crib from classic horror yarns when you’ve got “The Matrix” waiting to be cannibalized?

First-time director Len Wiseman, who co-wrote the story, evidently felt the best way to depict the centuries-old war was to ignore each side’s specialized supernatural faculties.



In “Underworld,” the only superhuman ability vampires have is the knack for jumping out of modest buildings and landing on their feet.

Impressive.

“Pearl Harbor“‘s Kate Beckinsale is Selene, a vampire warrior out to extinguish what remains of the lycanthropes. The movie opens with Selene in an unnamed city’s subway system, battling it out with a roving gang of werewolves. Caught in the crossfire is Michael (Scott Speedman), a young doctor who we soon learn is the real target of the wolves.

Selene wants to know more about Michael and why the lycans are tracking him. Her attempt to find him leads her foes to him as well, and before you know it, Michael has a nasty werewolf bite on his neck.

We all know what happens next.

But Michael’s furry fate is intertwined with the raging battle. Selene soon learns that many of the truths she clung to about her fellow vampires may not really be true at all.

There’s a lot wrong with “Underworld,” starting with its confusing narrative and ending with some of the more incoherent action sequences in years. It doesn’t help that none of the actors distinguish themselves in between.

Miss Beckinsale shouldn’t get within 50 yards of a film like “Underworld,” which buries her porcelain beauty without leaving us any other reason to watch her.

What works is the glorious set design evoking the film’s charcoal-gray netherworld. Also promising are the racial subtleties of the script, whose story of the warring factions and their possible intermingling resonates with modern overtones. What a wasted chance to take the horror genre in a new, intriguing direction.

The one nagging element which haunts “Underworld” more than anything else is the sense the creators have little love for the source material, the dual monster legends.

Hollywood monster movies, even the lesser models, usually redefine the monster myths in novel ways. Even the campy “Fright Night” (1985) told us vampires only feared crosses held by true believers.

Here, we’re treated to special bullets with properties that can kill both undead clans. That’s where the innovations begin and end.

Had “Underworld” explored the lives of these lost souls, or at least put down the guns and let vampires be vampires, it could have been a worthy addition to the cinematic monster vault.

**

WHAT: “Underworld”

RATING: R (Violence, supernatural gore and harsh language)

CREDITS: Directed by Len Wiseman. Written by Danny McBride. Produced by Tom Rosenberg, Gary Lucchesi and Richard Wright. Production design by Bruton Jones.

RUNNING TIME: 121 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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