Vampire flick an unhyped surprise

Hawkins Teague

If you’re looking for an action movie that actually delivers – and you’ve already seen “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” – then you might want to check out “Underworld.”

“Underworld” (HHH out of four) tells the story of a war between vampires and werewolves that has been waged for centuries. Humans are oblivious to this feud because they don’t know that these creatures exist. So when a doctor named Michael (Scott Speedman) is pursued by a group werewolves in the subway one night, he hasn’t the faintest idea what’s happening.

A vampire named Selene (Kate Beckinsale) wants to know what her enemies, who are referred to as Lycans, want with the human, so she follows him home. They are met there by Lycans but manage to escape after Michael is bitten by one of them.

Selene brings him back to the vampire coven, but the other vampires want him dead because he will be a werewolf before the next full moon. However, Selene likes Michael and doesn’t know what to do.

She doesn’t trust Kraven (Shane Brolly), the current coven leader, so she performs a ritual to resurrect Viktor, her favorite vampire elder, to help her, even though he isn’t supposed to be brought back for another century.

The film does a remarkably good job of placing us in the middle of its world, giving us just enough information to grab us in the beginning and then pull us along for the journey, figuring it out as we go. Since Selene is the principal character, our sympathies first lie with the vampires and their goal to kill off the Lycans.

Beckinsale is an appealing lead, but it also helps that Bill Nighy’s Viktor is such a magnetic screen presence. From the moment he first appears on screen, he exudes an authoritarian air that makes us accept his wisdom and dignity.

When a few nasty secrets are revealed to Selene about Viktor and the origins of the war, we are hurt and confused, just as she is. Her newfound knowledge causes her to question her allegiance, think about the nature of evil itself, and ask herself who the real villains are. Is evil set in stone, or is it merely determined by which side we’re on? This question gives the movie an extra, relevant dimension.

First-time director Len Wiseman shows us the fight scenes with a great urgency and attention to detail that many of today’s recent action movies have lacked. The visual style of “Underworld” is also a great asset, even if it is a bit similar to “The Matrix.” And judging by the vampires’ boots and long leather coats, they’ve probably seen that film a few times themselves.

But “Underworld” has something going for it that “The Matrix Reloaded” didn’t, and possibly couldn’t have had: freshness.

After a summer of bloated blockbusters and event movies, this almost completely unhyped film arrives as a very pleasant surprise.

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