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West Side (Transylvania) Story
on December 7, 2004
Boiled down to the fine little dish of steak tar-tar that it is, "Underworld" is the answer to the two horror flick questions you had as a kid:
1) If Dracula and the Wolfman went mano a mano and fang-to-claw, which one would do the thrashing?
2) If Dracula and the Wolfman checked into a cheap motel, got roaring drunk on a case of Night Train, and had a baby, what would it look like?
You get the answer to #1 early and often, which is pretty much what this Transylvania Station is all about. And by the end of "Underworld" you get #2 as well---and trust me, when it's hopping about like an ugly green Mini-Hulk (right down to its one-size-fits-all-monster trunks) you'll wish you hadn't.
You want to know what you're getting when you lace up your thigh-high attitude boots and strap on that trenchcoat for a little midnight fun in Len Wiseman's uber-stylish little monster mash "Underworld"?
Think West Side Story: only here, instead of the Jets and the Sharks angling for a rumble on the other side of the tracks, we have Vampires and Werewolves. Oh, and in "Underworld" nobody breaks into song. Both sides just want to rumble, and the girls just wanna have fun. In the meantime, while not the sharpest stake in the vamp-hunter kitbag, "Underworld" finds its groove, and serves up a bloody two hours of unabashed techno-cool that drinks you dry, trashes the apartment and howls at the moon.
We get dropped into the middle of a war that Celine (the impossibly tasty Kate Beckinsdale)---our supple full-body-suit clad vampiric Death Dealer and narrator---tells us has been "raging for centuries."
On one side of the tracks: the sneering, brutally hip Euro-trashy leather-trenchcoat & hip-sunglasses wearing uber-high-maintenance Vampires. They have posh high-rent neo-Victorian digs, drive around the streets in Jaguars and Maseratis, and have managed to switch up the silver bullets in their glocks and MP-5 submachine guns for something more lethal: liquid silver nitrate, which makes it tougher for their hairy buddies to pull the bullets out. Advantage: Vampires.
On the other side of the tracks: the Salvation Army surplus-wearing tear-your-scalp-off-and-wear-it Werewolves---erm, I mean Lycans, short for Lycanthropes. The Lycans are strictly low-rent, hang out together in what looks like an abandoned public lavatory, and take a bath once every full moon whether they need it or not. Whereas their blood-sucking cousins from the East Side look like they'd be hanging at crazy underground raves when they're not boring each other to tears talking like the Merovingian, the Lycans are strictly the mosh-pit set. Oh, and from what I could tell, there's not a single werewolf girl. C'mon guys---haven't ya heard of "Ginger Snaps"? Bummer. Advantage: Vampires.
That said, the boys have been pumping the rent money they've saved up into super-science research, giving them bullets that encase super-photoelectric magnesium charges (perfect for giving that oncoming vamp a little taste of Club Med sunlight). They also have the upper hand in figuring out how they can mix the bloodlines, bringing the war between Vamp and Lycan to an end. Advantage: Lycans.
And finally, mixing it up with our fanged-kissin' cousins, we have perplexed med student Michael Corvin (played by the annoying Scott Speedman who cashes a check) stalked by Lycan heavies and tagged by Selene, who wants to know why the werewolf army is so eager to get their hands on him.
And that, pretty much, is "Underworld": two hours of movie built around jaw-droppingly gorgeous set-pieces and bouts of total war between locked-and-loaded squads of Things that go Bump in the Night.
Just a note: you'll want to get the Unrated Extended DVD: it fleshes things out, beefs up some supporting characters, and ends with an extended battle sequence---and it's loaded down with plenty of extras you can sink your fangs into.
Plus, the sleeker transfer shows off Wiseman's technical mastery in spades. Wiseman uses sound-stages and CGI to anchor the film's look, and tethers all of it to the fog-shrouded cobbled streets and ancient alleys of Prague: the City itself takes on a bleak and brooding character. The movie looks gorgeous: whether it's the gloomy red-velvet and dark mahogany halls of the mansion, the sleek, sterile Underground, or the industrial ruins of the Lycans, Wiseman and cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts make every scene tell. The sequence where a locomotive full of vampire diplomats chugs into a deserted rail-station---with the baying of werewolves in the distance---is jaw dropping.
"Underworld" also gets the most out of its talented stable of actors. There are three centers of gravity in the film: Beckinsdale, who doesn't need her bodysuit to command her lines (though I'm glad she wore it). The Lycan overlord Lucien (the gifted Welsh actor Michael Sheen) steals every scene he's in, and brings complexity and command to a role that could have been a throwaway in lesser hands. Finally, there's the Vampire King Viktor, played by the great Bill Nighy (who also played Shaun's Jag-loving stepdad in "Shaun of the Dead"). Nighy is a kind of demonic embodiment of immortal Puritan rage, and acts like a champ through all that make-up.
Even the supporting actors turn in strong roles: Shane Brolly (Kraven) whines and pouts and lisps and turns in a convincing performance as a spineless worm; Sophia Myles (Erika) comes off as a naughty little vampire cat-girl; Kevin Grevioux owns this film and puts the smack down as Uber-Werewolf Raze; and Hungarian actress Zita Gorog rocked my world---without uttering a single line.
In the end, this batwinged black-lipstick wearing looker of a flick charged into the goth club of my choice, served me an extra-bloody steak tartar , smacked me around, bought me drinks, and talked Shakespeare after. Would a Lycan by any other name be just as hairy?