‘Underworld’ is underwhelming

In a season that has brought holiday moviegoers such award-winning films as “Brokeback Mountain,” “King Kong” and “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” Evolution Effects Studio’s newest film, “Underworld Evolution,” directed by Len Wiseman, seems to be thoroughly outranked and outclassed by its box office competition in this important month leading up to the Oscars.

The plot of the film centers on the vampire Selene (Kate Beckinsale) and the werewolf Michael (Scott Speedman, “XXX 2: The Next Level”), who are unlucky enough to still be involved in the ongoing battle between vampires and werewolves detailed in the first film. Thrown into the mix this time are villainous brothers, the vampire Marcus (Tony Curran, “Flight of the Phoenix”) and his werewolf brother William (Brian Steele, “Blade: Trinity”), who desire to create a master race of powerful vampire/werewolf hybrids. While the film attempts to catch up viewers who have yet to see the first film, the many flashbacks used to do this only serve to further confuse new audiences with too many competing story lines. The flashbacks are also filmed in such a rough, grainy and fast manner that it is often difficult to discern what exactly is going on.

The action in the film is also hampered by appallingly bad special effects. On many occasions the effects are little better than those on made-for-TV movies. In lieu of good special effects and computer graphics, Wiseman chooses to throw in as much gooey makeup blood as he can in the fight scenes, undoubtedly making costuming and continuity a nightmare.

Throughout the many action sequences, the camera begins crosscutting so quickly that it becomes virtually impossible to tell who is being hacked to bits by a werewolf or is having their blood slurped by a vampire. This technique may distract the audience from apparent flaws; but Wiseman risks, and occasionally succeeds, in giving his audience a severe case of motion sickness. Finally, during the predictable finale, the torrents of costume blood, combined with the awful special effects, only serve to hamper the action and the tension by making the audience laugh at a pivotal moment in the conclusion.

Next, the lackluster performances given by most of its actors do not help the film. Actor Bill Nighy (“Love Actually”), normally a pleasure to watch, gives a forced and overzealous performance throughout the entire film as Viktor, Selene’s mentor from the first film. Meanwhile, Beckinsale and Speedman give their most believable performances while opposite each other, and there seems to be the beginnings of a genuine chemistry between them. It’s a job well done, considering Bekinsale is married to the film’s director, Wiseman.

Along with some of the performances, the makeup in this film is a high point, particularly the makeup on the many werewolves who, unlike their counterparts in many previous monster movies, are men in costume rather than computer-generated. The transformed vampires, taking a page from 2001’s “Van Helsing,” closely resemble Gollum with a large set of satanic wings, and are outdone by the more traditional werewolves.

Since the release of “Underworld” in 2003, the franchise has built up a tremendously devoted fan following, and those fans will undoubtedly find it an entertaining movie to see this weekend. However, those unfamiliar with the franchise might find themselves a little lost in the seemingly endless web of complicated plots and flashbacks. And whatever you do, don’t sit too close to the screen.

“Underworld Evolution” is currently playing in theaters across the country.

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