Underworld


Black leather outfit #231.

Black leather outfit #231.

(2003) Horror Action (Screen Gems) Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Shane Brolly, Michael Sheen, Bill Nighy, Erwin Leder, Sophia Myles, Robby Gee, Wentworth Miller, Kevin Grevioux, Zita Gorog, Dennis Kozeluh, Scott McElroy, Todd Schneider, Sandor Bolla, Hank Amos, Zsuzsa Barisi, Rich Cetrone, Mike Mukatis. Directed by Len Wiseman

 

Underworld sounds like a great concept: a secret war between vampires and werewolves going on for a thousand years without humans knowing a thing about it. In the midst of this, a vampire falls in love with a human who becomes a werewolf but is really something else … oh dear, my brain just exploded. Let me start again.

 

Selena (Beckinsale) is a Deathdealer, one of an elite vampire warrior caste that hunts down werewolves. She is quite good at it – maybe better than anyone. Things are looking up for the vampires at this point. They are winning their war with the Lycans (werewolves), their high-tech weapons more than overcoming the brute strength and power of the lycanthropes. On top of it, the time of the Awakening is near, when one of the ancient original Vampires awakens from its slumber to assume the mantle of leadership for a few centuries (there are three original vampires still around; they require centuries of sleep in order to survive).

 

Selena notes that the Lycans have taken interest in a human named Michael Corvin (Speedman), an intern at a large urban hospital. She decides to investigate. This becomes a tightrope as she tries to keep him alive, saving him both from the Lycans who seem to want him, as well as from her own race who wants him dead, The other vampires become downright irate after Corvin is bitten by Lucian, the Lycan leader (Sheen). And as Selena digs deeper, she is thwarted by Craven (Brolly), the Vampire leader, and in desperation, awakens her mentor Viktor (Nighy) for guidance.

 

Before you can say “Wouldn’t it be a total Hollywood cliché if she fell in love with Michael Corvin?” she falls in love with Michael Corvin. Then she begins to find out the truth about the war, and it ain’t pretty. In fact, the vampires are keeping a lot of deep, dark secrets.

 

The problem with “Underworld” is that there is an incredibly rich backstory that screams for further exploration. But director Len Wiseman is forced to sacrifice much of the dialogue and backstory for action and effects, and so it can be kind of hard to keep track. Those who have seen the sequels to this will find that it is less of a problem but seeing the original cold without the benefit of some of that backstory that comes out in the sequels can be confusing.

 

The vampires, who are supposed to be arrogant and aristocratic, come off as indolent and lackadaisical. Think of it almost like vampires written by Anne Rice on lithium. I know that at the time this was made it was fairly fashionable to portray vampires as members of a vanishing race, going un-quietly into oblivion, but, sheesh. At least none of them sparkle in the sunlight.

 

Although technologically advanced, there’s no real hint as to where the vampire technology is coming from. Few of the vampires in the movie seem to do little more than sit around in crumbling, faded mansions sipping what I guess is meant to be blood from wineglasses. They wear trendy Eurotrash fashions and generally behave as if they are guests at an interminably long party at which the guest of honor hasn’t yet arrived. And they’re supposed to be winning?

 

As decadent as the vampires are, they are in some ways preferable to the Lycans. Although they have more vitality than the vamps, they still come off little better than the disposable thugs that populated the  TV Batman series. When they hit someone, you almost expect cartoon graphics reading “POW!” “BAM!” and “KA-THUNK!”

 

In any Romeo and Juliet type of romance, which Underworld ultimately is, there has to be an element of tragedy and there just isn’t one here. Sure, there’s bloodshed, mayhem, death and destruction, but as the movie lurches to a climax, the tragedy seems to be less and less involved with the romantic leads. That strips the love story of its poignancy and just about kills any shot at romanticism. If you were to populate Romeo and Juliet with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sigourney Weaver in the leads and instead of having them kill themselves at the end instead mowing down all the Montagues and Capulets with machine guns, you get the idea of what we have here.

 

It’s a shame, since Speedman and Beckinsale work well together and have some nice chemistry. And while Beckinsale’s costume designer seems determined to break some sort of cinematic record for the most variations on black leather in a single movie, Beckinsale still manages to look vivacious and attractive, even alluring, while kicking some major patootie.

 

The visuals are what work about Underworld which makes sense, since director Wiseman comes from an art-direction background. The cityscapes are crumbling, corrupt, dimly lit and depressing, a cross between the landscape of Tim Burton’s Gotham City and  the Detroit of The Crow. The effects are pretty nifty too, particularly the sequences in which the Lycans morph from human to werewolf. The action sequences are a highlight, beautifully choreographed.

 

Ultimately, though, this is a good concept gone bad. Think of Underworld as a grand mansion that looks terrific from the outside, but once you open the door turns out to be empty and cold.

WHY RENT THIS: Beckinsale is an excellent action heroine. Some nice art direction and special effects.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Confusing with more backstory than time to explore it. Sets up a romance then forsakes it for action and gore. Vampire profile a little too Anne Rice.

FAMILY MATTERS: Lots of violence and gore, as well as some pretty foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Beckinsale and Wiseman would fall in love after meeting on this film. They eventually got married and remain so to this day.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The Special Edition DVD includes a storyboard vs. film comparison and a music video. The unrated 2-Disc DVD edition (and Blu-Ray) includes these as well as a History Channel Fang vs. Fiction quasi-documentary that looks at traditional vampire/werewolf lore and compares it to this film for reasons unknown.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $95.7M on a $22M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Twilight

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Pool Boys

 

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Total Recall (2012)


 

Total Recall

Colin Farrell is no saint, despite the halo.

(2012) Science Fiction (Columbia) Colin Farrell, Jessica Biel, Kate Beckinsale, Bryan Cranston, Bokeem Woodbine, Bill Nighy, John Cho, Will Yun Lee, Dylan Scott Smith, Mishael Morgan, Lisa Chandler, Natalie Lisinska, James McGowan. Directed by Len Wiseman

 

It is part of being human to be unsatisfied with the lives we’ve been given. Never mind that we make the choices that determine the course of that life – too often we sit and wonder why our lives aren’t more exciting and daydreaming what we would do if we were Heidi Klum or James Bond.

Doug Quaid (Farrell) builds robotic cops on an assembly line on a late 21st century Earth. Chemical warfare has rendered almost all of it uninhabitable except for the area around Great Britain and most of Australia. Workers live in the Australian section, known as The Colony and travel by a futuristic super-elevator through the center of the earth called the Fall to their jobs in the elite United Federation of Britain, which is ruled over by Vilos Cohaagen (Cranston), the autocratic chancellor. He is happily married to Lori (Beckinsale), a nurse. He and his friend Harry (Woodbine) often go out drinking together. And yet Quaid feels like something’s missing.

In a world where a resistance, led by the enigmatic and reclusive Matthias (Nighy) tries to end the oppression of the UFB in the Colony, Quaid longs for adventure and intrigue. He sees an ad for a company called Rekall which creates artificial memories for any sort of life; from being rich and famous, a chick (or stud) magnet, a secret agent. The latter appeals to Quaid so he decides to avail himself of their services.

Only almost as soon as the needle goes in, the cops come bursting in the door guns blazing. Quaid is the only one left alive and it looks like he’s going to be arrested but suddenly Quaid takes down the officers one by one and is left with not a scratch on him and a stunned expression on his face. When he goes back home to tell Lori about it, she reacts like any wife would if their husband did something without telling them; she tries to kill him (the difference between Lori and Da Queen is that Da Queen would have succeeded).

Confused and frightened, he goes on the run and discovers that he was somehow involved with the resistance, that his name is not Doug Quaid but Carl Hauser and that all of his memories are false, implanted there by the UFB along with Lori who is a crack agent of theirs. They are after something in his head; so is the resistance, who sends Melina (Biel) to rescue him.

They are on the run trying to make it to Matthias and the resistance. Can they get there before Cohaagen carries out his terrifying plan to invade the Colony and murder millions?

Many will recall with affection the 1990 version of this movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone and Rachel Ticotin as Quaid/Hauser, Lori and Melina respectively, directed by Dutch auteur Paul Verhoeven. While the early version was set on Mars (mostly), this one is set entirely on Mother Earth and both are loosely based on Phillip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” (referred to in dialogue by the receptionist at Rekall during the movie as a kind of lovely little tribute). While this one is a little closer to the source material, it still isn’t quite what you’d call too faithful to the original.

One of the problems with the original is Schwarzenegger. Not that he’s terrible – his natural charisma carried the movie in a lot of ways – but that he’s too believable as Hauser. The movie works better with Farrell because you can believe him as Quaid much more easily than you could believe Schwarzenegger and you also believe him less as Hauser than you can believe Schwarzenegger – but you can nevertheless believe him. You get more of a sense of his confusion and doubt as to what’s real and what isn’t, his initial frustration and boredom and his later rage.

Beckinsale makes an excellent Lori; loving and cuddly but vicious and ruthlessly efficient at her job as  UFB undercover agent. She’s a fine actress who unfortunately (or fortunately if you want to look at it that way) has been cast in a lot of action roles because of her success in Underworld and it’s sequels. She does get a little bit of a chance to shine as an actress here, enough so that I find myself wishing she had more dramatic roles offered to her because she is so good.

Biel and Farrell have decent chemistry together and she makes a pretty fair action heroine herself. The special effects are pretty spectacular but it’s the action sequences that make this movie worth seeing. From the opening fight in the Rekall office to the climax on the roof of the Fall terminus, this is as well-choreographed as any Asian martial arts masterpiece.

As late summer blockbusters go, Total Recall fits the bill nicely. Judging on the early box office returns and simply that this is a bit darker-toned than the original, this probably won’t be the hit that the original was. However, in many ways it’s a superior movie although quite frankly despite the fact that they are basically related at the end of the day comparing the two is like comparing apples and oranges. Or maybe, closer to the point, like comparing oranges and tangerines.

REASONS TO GO: Great action sequences. Well thought-out and spectacular.

REASONS TO STAY: Less of a light tone than the original. No Ah-nuld.

FAMILY VALUES: The action scenes are fairly intense and violent; there’s not a lot of gore but there is some. There’s brief nudity, some sexuality and of course foul language. Those who are prone to dizziness should note that there are lots of scenes of things spinning and dropping so you may want to be aware of this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The fight scene at Rekall was done in one continuous shot; Farrell did his own stunt work for it and it took 22 takes before it was done correctly.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/8/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100. The reviews are bad.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blade Runner

BLADE RUNNER LOVERS: The set design, look and filming style for scenes set in The Colony are very reminiscent of the Ridley Scott classic.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Bleeding House