Let’s climb into the Way Back Machine and head back to 2002, when the first Underworld film was being shot.
It was a cool concept: Vampires vs. Werewolves in modern times, featuring two up-and-coming hot leads in Kate Beckinsale and Scott Speedman.
Beckinsale had just come off the bomb that was Pearl Harbor, while Speedman, an English boy who grew up in Toronto, was considered a TV hunk, after his role on the cult hit Felicity.
The movie did well. It helped launch Beckinsale, who rocked a shiny black leather corset and is to blame for causing copious amounts of man drool, onto a modestly successful film career (including a bit role in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator).
Speedman, however, became something of a forgotten man. He was no longer the TV hunk of the moment and he was playing second fiddle to a hot English chick in a shiny corset.
Which brings me to this week’s feature DVD review: Underworld Awakening. For those keeping count, this is the fourth movie in the franchise. However, it’s only the third for Beckinsale and Speedman. (The third film told the back story of Lucian and his vampire lover, which starred Michael Sheen and Bill NIghy and was actually a really cool little action flick.)
But if you’re a Speedman fan, don’t blink. He’s in it for a few seconds. He’s become like the Where’s Waldo of the Underworld universe.
Beckinsale, however, remains front and centre and she continues to rock that corset while mowing down baddies with dual machine pistols and a deadly serious, but oddly sexy grim countenance.
This time around, we pick up with Beckinsale’s Selene and Speedman’s Michael making plans to flee after the end of the second movie.
But they’re captured.
Fast forward many years and Selene wakes up, finding herself trapped in some lab where people have been studying her while she was in stasis. Turns out that the world has changed. Humans are now aware of the vampires and werewolves and humanity declared war on the two groups, killing them en masse and bringing both sides to the brink of extinction.
Both groups have been driven underground and scientists have been studying Selene and Michael, as well as a little girl, to see if they can’t figure out some sort of way to reverse their conditions.
Selene escapes and has visions seen through the eyes of another. She assumes it’s Michael as they share a telepathic connection. Turns out to be the little girl, who is more than meets the eye.
From that point on, it’s basically a chase movie, with Selene trying to protect the child from the scientists determined to capture them and experiment further on the little girl.
But the scientists have secrets of their own, including a giant werewolf who does their bidding in tracking down the remnants of vampires who live underground on the fringes of the city.
Selene gets wind of the scientists’ evil plan and is determined to stop them, save the girl and free Michael from their clutches.
Director Len Wiseman, who helmed the first two movies (which were the best films), has since moved on and is now working on the Total Recall reboot starring Colin Farrell and his main squeeze, Beckinsale. And his hand on this franchise is missed. While he helped write Awakening, it’s clear the franchise misses his hand because he had a real understanding of this unique genre and took it seriously enough that he kept it from becoming bizarre camp.
European directors Mans Marlind and Bjorn Stein do a decent job of staging the gun fights and action sequences in Awakening, but the character development and sense of dark fun that permeated the first three films is decidedly missing from this one. And it suffers for it.
Sure, there are some great gun battles in Awakening. Sure, Beckinsale looks great kicking butt. And sure, the big werewolf is cool, menacing and leaves a satisfying amount of destruction in its wake. But the film feels flat.
Thankfully, the DVD version spares you from the hideous 3D screening that I paid to sit through in theatres earlier this year. It gave Clash of the Titans a run for worst looking 3D movie of the current era. But in 2D, the action is more palatable.
Overall, if you’re an Underworld fan, there’s enough here to keep you interested during the quick 89-minute flick. But it’s a pale imitation of what the first three movies represented.
The extras are limited to a filmmaker’s commentary track, which is disappointing, since I would have liked to gotten a lot more into the making of the movie in the hopes of understanding why they streamlined the story and took it in the direction they did.
* * *
Here’s a quick look at some other DVDs now available:
* John Wayne Film Collection: This 10-disc set features some of The Duke’s iconic flicks, including, for the first time on DVD, The Barbarian and The Geisha. Other flicks include The Undefeated, The Longest Day, The Comancheros, The Alamo, North to Alaska and The Big Trail. Longest Day and The Alamo are certainly iconic films, but be sure to check out Barbarian, which was directed by the legendary John Huston and sees Wayne playing an American diplomat who meets a beautiful Japanese Geisha girl.
* Frank Sinatra Film Collection: Ol’Blue Eyes may be best remembered by today’s middle agers and youth as an iconic singer, but he had serious acting aspirations in his younger days and made some interesting movies. This 10-film collection features Kings Go Forth (a WWII drama co-starring Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood), A Hole in the Head (directed by Frank Capra), Can-Can (with Shirley MacLaine), The Manchurian Candidate, Von Ryan’s Express, Cast a Giant Shadow (with John Wayne and Kirk Douglas), and two Tony Rome flicks, in which Sinatra plays a Miami private eye. The sequel co-starred Raquel Welch.
* Kojak: Season Four: Telly Savalas stars as the San Fran crime fighter in this six-disc set featuring 25 episodes. Highlights include Kojak tracking down a nut who kidnapped his niece, as well as hunting the serial killer known as the Grim Reaper.
* Fantasy Island: Season Two: Aaron Spelling’s cheesy but strangely addictive TV show about an island where people can find the happy endings they want for their lives. Overseeing the action is the host, Mr. Roarke, played by Ricardo Montalban, as well as his cohort Tattoo, the late Herve Villechaize.
The show’s hallmark was a roster of great guest stars and this season was no exception. Look for episodes featuring the likes of Cassandra Peterson (Elvira), Jonathan Frakes, Michelle Pfeiffer, Mamie Van Doren, Don Knotts, Cesar Romero, Roddy McDowall, Regis Philbin, Annette Funicello, Leslie Nielsen, Cyd Charisse, John Astin, Sonny Bono and Janet Leigh.