With fiends like these

by Tom Horgen

Into the rabbit hole we fall again. Leather-clad body armor, twin automatic pistols, glorious slow-motion. A feast for the eyes.

But this isn’t “The Matrix.” This is horror. Vampires, werewolves and thousands and thousands of bullets. Behold: “Underworld.”

Here is a movie cut from the belly of post-“Matrix” Hollywood, drenched in its aesthetic obsession. Below its surface of sleek artifice is an analogy-in-progress, one that almost turns a war between vampires and werewolves into a discussion on race and class. Too bad it loses its footing and falls deeper down the rabbit hole, where artifice is all that’s left.

After “The Matrix” was released in 1999, action directors became addicts and fiends for the perfect slow-motion shot. Their cameras lust at the thought of following any bullet as it cuts through air and into flesh. In turn, the camera’s lens has become ubiquitous. Time often slows down in these films just enough to track the elegant, twisting movements of, say, Spider-Man or the minisymphony of empty shells hitting the pavement.


Director: Len Wiseman
Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman and Danny McBride
Rated: R
Where: Area theaters

Of course, the new age godfather of this slow-mo mayhem, “The Matrix,” is itself a pastiche, created from various sources – most importantly, Japanese animation and John Woo’s Hong Kong bullet operas. And so it goes in American cinema. It seems every film is a copy of copy of a copy.

Fortunately, “Underworld” is one of the best post-“Matrix” knockoffs to come tumbling out of Hollywood. Its slow-motion shots capture whatever grace and beauty there might be in guns bursting and bodies contorting in combat. Wrapped in this storm of chic brutality is a horror story about two races locked in deep-seated hatred. As the film unfolds, the relationship between the two monster races builds into something much more political – a means to transcend eye candy posturing.

The vampires in “Underworld” are lazy, pale-faced aristocrats who lounge in their mansion drinking chalices of blood all day. Meanwhile, the werewolves roam the streets in human form, hiding in the damp, dark cracks of the film’s gothic metropolis. When a vampire (Beckinsale) and a werewolf become forbidden lovers, we learn that the two races have been entrenched in a 1,000-year-old war.

We also learn that the werewolves were once slaves to the vampire nation until a similar interracial love affair shattered the arrangement. The werewolves broke their chains of bondage and have been fighting to solidify their freedom ever since.

The film’s analogy is clear. Unfortunately “Underworld” doesn’t go much further with its racial underpinnings. It simply presents a topic for conversation – one rarely discussed overtly in glossy action productions – and then backs away.

Moviegoers might remember the way the “X-Men” films, with their visual flare and suggestive theme, were similarly ambitious. The prejudice and persecution endured by the mutant superheroes in those films was analogous to America’s history of civil rights abuses. “X-Men” went as far as creating two characters whose differing ideologies were loosely representative of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

But like “Underworld,” the superhero blockbusters haven’t moved past this simple analogy. They entertain the possibility of serious conversation. But without actually digging into any ideas for resolution, they simply regress into their leather-covered, slow-motion aesthetic.

“Underworld” is indeed an ambitious attempt at melding political discourse with the vain slickness of “The Matrix.” But it falls short because the inherent narcissism of films like this will never allow serious thought to develop.