Hi folks, and welcome to another of Chris's Quick-Fixes. This time we can take a brief look at Underworld Evolution, the largely lame and unimaginative sequel to the entertaining PVC-fest from 2004. Despite this movie having werewolves in it, make no mistake, this review is not part of my Full Moon Frenzy series. Director Len Wiseman once again pitches his surprisingly dull concept of an age-old war raging between werewolves and vampires, strips the colour out of it and bathes his now-wife Kate Beckinsale in all manner of swooning, pseudo-stylish framing to absolutely zero effect. Although I kind of begrudgingly liked the first outing, this instalment really has nothing going for it that you haven't, by now, seen a hundred times before. In fact, Wiseman's bleached-out aesthetic and below-par fighting choreography drag what was an eagerly fan-awaited production down to the depths of assembly-line, straight-to-DVD tedium. Black-clad warriors touting hi-tech weaponry? Check. Endless scenes of banal exposition? Check. Transformations for the sake of them? Check - by the bucketload. Pathetic characters with overly-worthy histories emoting pretentiously crass prophecies, and only existing for a purely plot-shuffling reason? Check - the once-great Derek Jacobi following all-too-tragically in Ben Kingsly's doomed footsteps. The seen-it-all-before mood that pervades the movie is a real disappointment considering that Wiseman and writer Danny McBride really seem to want to explore the shadowy world that they initially created ... and with such rich supernatural texture to wade through, the videogame dross that they came up with is a tragic waste of effort.
Beginning with a rather naff prologue set in a frosted medieval village, ravaged by Lycans (the age-old werewolf enemies of the poncy vampire clan) and littered with clawed-corpses about to transform, Evolution introduces us to two bothers, Marcus (Tony Curran) and William (a large lump of unconvincing CG). And, as the lousy title-scrawl informs us that Marcus was bitten by bat, and William bitten by wolf, the scene is obviously set for some sort of power-struggle that will transcend time and, inevitably, be waged in the modern-day era of slow-mo, bullet-time, tight black combat-suits and sexy, uber-vamp vixens with a nice line in John Woo-style twirling two-gun mayhem. I won't waste any further space discussing the mechanics of the plot, sufficed to say that it feels dry, over-used and utterly redundant - merely an excuse to have Kate Beckinsale's returning Selene and her bland stoner boyfriend Michael - the much ballyhooed hybrid of lycan and vampire - once again played without any emotion, expression or empathy by talent-vacuum Scott (please-get-out-of-movies) Speedman, run and jump around some gothic sets having violent but strangely blasé skirmishes with all and sundry. Somewhere in this boring and repetitive story is the couple's need to discover the secrets of their heritage as they come to terms with their illicit love for one another, signified by an intense look on Beckinsale's porcelain face and a typically vacant stare from Speedman, and that truly awful sex scene in which Michael appears to have trouble finding Selene's lady-bits - and the occasional diversions of Derek Jacobi's sage-like old vampire, Alexander Corvinus, as he attempts to thwart Marcus' desire to free his wolf man brother from centuries of subterranean incarceration. But plotting is hardly the film's strong point and couldn't possibly have been high on the production agenda despite what Wiseman and co may have to say in the commentary and the making-of featurettes.
But, be that as it may, for I can often put up with lousy scripting and acting in a genre piece, so long as the film has atmosphere to enhance it, or great special effects to distract the eyes. Shallow, maybe, but I always try to find something that I can latch onto even in the most dismal clunker like Van Helsing which, at the very least, had a madcap, pell-mell drive and enough sheer “nerve” to keep me entertained. But Underworld: Evolution has absolutely nothing going for it. The werewolves are simply not frightening enough and the big bad one, old William, himself, finally unleashed for an incredibly duff finale that sees the CG fur-ball leaping about some sound-stage ruins like a pointy-eared monkey, looks quite pathetic. He may be big and standing upright (as all the best lycanthropes should), but he is less convincing than the ballet dancers in masks in Dog Soldiers and about on a par with the pure cartoon howlers in Van Helsing. Not a good pedigree, if you ask me. Marcus' bat-creature fares much better and there is one nice transformation that we see him undergo towards the end that is reasonably impressive, but the good work here is undone by having Speedman's oily blue hybrid putting in another last-minute leap to the rescue that is as anticlimactic as it is predictable. The first film was underwhelming when it came to the hybrid as well. They spent ages alluding to his almost unlimited powers and really built up this crossbreed monster as being something totally new and unique before revealing that it was just Scott Speedman, sans shirt, with black olives for eyes and a few extra CG muscles. Erm ... that it, then? Yep. And he's back for more underwhelming action this time around. A few frame-jumping snarl and hiss flash-cuts, a la the infected from 28 Days and now Weeks Later, doesn't make him any more menacing, I'm afraid. Marcus' winged monstrosity is the only decent addition to this entry, but even this is overplayed to the point where the “gee-wow” factor is diminished to the “oh-here-we-go-again” factor come the final face-off.
Even the action is pretty lame. Wiseman's coolest moment from the first film was, arguably, Selene's balletic drop from the roof, and he naturally finds the time to repeat that shot here. But he fluffs it with sloppy editing and camera angles and a singular failure to make it look anywhere near as iconic. A truck-chase with Marcus' winged incarnation flying all around and tearing up the vehicle as Selene blasts at him through the windscreen and Michael flits between human and hybrid as he scuttles about in the back would have been great had it not been obvious that the truck is only going at about 3 mph! Individual shots, however, can be quite striking - the freshly-turned Lycans taking down horse and rider during the medieval skirmish in the prologue; werewolf-guards on super-long leashes smashing into the side of a 4X4; a circle of snapping-jawed beasts closing on Selene during the protracted climax - but there is a staleness to the smorgasbord of Matrix-light, slow-mo/wire-work/CG-combo set-pieces that makes the whole enterprise irredeemably shabby and yawn-inducing. Where is the sense of giddy wonder at such monsters tearing along walls and ceilings as they did first time around? How about the truly awesome sight of Michael Sheen's Lucien chasing after a speeding car? Or even the frighteningly unusual image of werewolves bare-knuckle brawling in the ultimate cage-fight? This movie does little with its material and reduces the adrenaline flow to a slow tickle. We don't even get any werewolves in the hour and half between the prologue and the end, bar a couple of tethered and snappy sentries - so much for this so-called war, then.
Another letdown is that, for a sequel, this feels considerably smaller-scale than the first film. Whilst a much tighter, more intimate plot is not necessarily a bad thing, with Evolution it just feels like a much-lesser chapter in the ongoing saga. The original, as hackneyed as it was, set up the whole mythology in a grandiose fashion, the city locations and the use of crowded subways and a much bigger cast providing the movie with an epic sensibility. This, at times, looks like a sanitised, on-the-hoof cash-in, everything from the first film either repeated or watered-down. And, of course, there is no Michael Sheen anymore ... well, not unless you count a few brief flashbacks - so we are left without anybody reliable enough to carry the film for even the merest of sequences. Bill Nighy may have been amusingly effective last time around as a reawakened vampire lord, but his few minutes' worth of prologue-time in chucklesome armour is mired with his remarkably strange line delivery and blatant shoe-horning-in.
Whilst it is nice to see Tony Curran, who has only ever played bit parts in films such as Gladiator (as the Praetorian executioner that Maximus nuts with the back of his head) and as a Viking in John McTeirnan's highly atmospheric The 13th Warrior, or as ... wait for it ... the invisible man in LXG, the sad fact is that he simply cannot convince as anything other than a background sword-wielder. He commands nothing with this by-the-numbers performance. Admittedly, there isn't a lot actually required by the human side of the part - merely waltzing around, spouting endless reams of exposition - but he lacks the essential presence of a villain, even a partially sympathetic one such as Marcus. With no tangible threat, none of the political scheming and double-crossing of the first film and a woeful lack of empathy with either of the two leads, this sequel is simply an exercise in soulless photography and flaccid action.
So, unlike its title implies Underworld Evolution feels more like a regression than the next stage in an unfolding saga. The scale and the stakes being played for are much smaller than they were first time around and the excitement and imagination considerably lessened as a result. Mind you, at least Kate Beckinsale doesn't adopt that risible mock-European accent that she sported in Van Helsing. All together now ... “He's my brrrrrr-aahhh-thherrrrrr!”
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