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Underworld

Year: 2003
Production Co: Lakeshore
Director: Len Wiseman
Writer: Len Wiseman/Kevin Grevioux/Danny McBride
Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Bill Nighy, Michael Sheen

It's hard to imagine Kate Beckinsale as a black leather-clad urban warrior until you see what use the blue/black, gothic production design has made of her classical accent and pale English skin.

As Deathdealer Selene, the member of a coven of vampires in Eastern Europe, Beckinsale does indeed lend Underworld the weight Wiseman envisioned. In fact, it's during the gaps in the action (inevitable because of the low budget) that her quiet but smouldering presence keeps the film going.

In the centuries-old war raging between vampires and lycans (werewolves) out of sight from humanity, the vampires are a sort of aristocracy, lounging in mansions and drinking blood from Champagne flutes. By contrast, the lycans are brutish and bestial, regarded as feral by their enemies.

When werewolf killer Selene notices the lycans are particularly interested in human medical student Michael (Scott Speedman, last seen as Kurt Russell's partner in Dark Blue), she wants to know why. Her trail leads to a deep conspiracy involving the war, Michael, the vampire elders in their centuries-long regenerative sleep and both klans' charismatic leaders.

And that's where Underworld does a better job than most action movies around lately. Bad Boys or Charlie's Angels it ain't – there's no contrived, mundane plotting simply there to bridge the gap until the next orgy of destruction. The narrative strongly underpins the movie, and the action complements it.

Neither the story nor the action are by any means the most original you've seen. The look and feel of Underworld borrows from every dark sci-fi or action film of recent times, including The Crow, The Matrix, The Terminator and (at times) Interview With the Vampire. And you don't need to be a detective to work out the story before any of the characters do.

But it's a very refreshing change to see a movie touted as an action blockbuster that not only lives up to that promise (or very close to it), but weaves an interesting tale.

Wiseman and co. have done the best they could for the money, but occasionally you can see where a higher bankroll would have encouraged Underworld to flex its muscles. There's also a sense of the gothic sensuality bought to the vampire myth by artists from Anne Rice to Francis Ford Coppola's (in 1992's Bram Stoker's Dracula), and it makes Underworld a smarter cousin to straight vampire action movies like Blade.

Again, it's a tone that could have been explored with a higher budget, but for the most part, Underworld is a rare event – a blockbuster with a brain and a heart, not just a catalogue of arbitrary bullet time rip-offs.

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