The first Underworld is an easy movie to pick on. Billed as a Romeo and Juliet love story with scary monsters and jaw-dropping action, it ended up being a blah love story with blah monsters and action that, while technically competent, was still fairly blah. With an ill-defined Euro-goth backdrop, a costume design lifted entirely from the Matrix trilogy and a visual style that can best be described as “blue-ish,” it came across as large cinematic yawn. Not awful enough to be enjoyed on a camp level; not good enough to have its flaws overlooked. And yet, despite all rational logic, it became quite popular, particularly amongst the Anne Rice readers out there.
Thus, a sequel.
We begin with a lengthy prologue; a vamp-vs.-wolf battle set in medieval times that was put in solely as a flashy way for the filmmakers to illustrate right from the start how much higher their production budget is this time around. The new villain is also introduced, but it’s best to just focus on the action, as the exposition makes little sense and, besides, it’s repeated a few times throughout the movie so as not to lose any of the slower viewers. Following that, and after the “Previously on Underworld” credit sequence, we pick up right where the original left off, Halloween 2-style. Vampire Selene (Beckinsale) and hybrid Michael (Speedman) are now on the run, branded as enemies by both of the warring clans. They are beset upon by the aforementioned bad guy, Marcus, whose intent on stealing a necklace from Michael that he had, in the previous movie, been given by Lucien, just after he was shot by Kravan, who… okay, look. There’s a LOT of plot in this movie. Recounting all of the twists and turns would require, at minimum, a two-unit lecture course and is unnecessary anyway because none of it would actually make any sense. Suffice to say it involves a lot of grudges, a few ancient ancestors with key bits of info, some dips into Selene’s past that yield and one pissed-off werewolf that’s been imprisoned in a coffin for a few hundred years.
This density of story proves to be one of two related issues that keep Underworld: Evolution from becoming anything more than slickly made eye-candy. While a little complexity can be an invigorating challenge for a willing audience, an impenetrable plot such as this proves only to be exhausting. It’s hard to care about characters when you’re still trying to sort out who’s related to whom and why it matters. The other issue, and the one that I feel does the most damage, is the film’s utterly dour, never-crack-a-smile tone. We’re talking about a movie where vampires fight werewolves, folks. The complete preposterousness of the situation requires a least a little humor and, in its absence, we’re given an over-abundance of back story that only serves to mask the black hole of charisma that by all rights should be filled. The simple fact is this: The movie just isn’t good enough to take it’s self so seriously. Fortunately, there are some nice action set-pieces to hold your attention; a vast improvement over the original’s uninspired offerings. One scene, a chase that incorporates a logging truck, a flying vampire, a narrow mountain road, and guns and fists proves to be the highlight of the entire film.
As for the cast, it breaks down to two groups: Talented British Actors and Non-British Actors Who Are Largely Forgettable. In the first camp, we have Kate Beckinsale, who is good, though not a whole lot is required of her. We’re also treated to more Bill Nighy, who continues to prove, with only a handful of lines this time, that he’s a better actor than anyone with whom he shares the screen. And from out of nowhere, we have classically-trained Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi who pops up near the middle, clearly needing to make a house payment this month. The other camp is headed up by Scott Speedman (who I’m certain is also Scott Stapp, lead singer of Creed). Though he spends most of the movie covered in latex, he still manages to under-whelm. Everyone else is either forgetable and bland, or under so much make-up that asking for any real emotions from them would just be silly. It should be noted that Shane Brolly, who played the villain in the first film with all the magnetic intensity of hardwood floor, is killed off early on and everyone is the better for it.
To be fair, Underworld: Evolution is a definite improvement over its source. That’s not saying a whole lot, but it’s true nonetheless. With more money and more time, they were able to make the film at least look like an exciting, engaging action/horror hybrid. Unfortunately, the part that needs the most fixing is left unattended. Once again, it has been proven that action, gore, fancy camera work and pretty faces are no match against story, plot and, of course, fun. If they can find a way to add those key ingredients into the mix, they may finally shake off the overwhelming blahs that plague this production, once and for all.