American director Len Wiseman has been in the gossip pages lately, not for his debut feature Underworld but for his pairing up with British actress Kate Beckinsale. Furthermore, prior to the production, Beckinsale was actually married to another member of the cast, Welshman Michael Sheen.

It is said Wiseman was sitting in his lounge room with his mate, the black actor/stuntman Kevin Grevioux, when, discussing their mutual love of the werewolf/vampire genre, they hit upon their own idea for a genre film for the new millennium, a Romeo/Juliet Shakespearean take on the old myths about the undead. Sounds novel, at least. They dialled up another friend, Danny McBride, also an actor/stuntman but who also had had some previous scriptwriting experience (one episode of the New Outer Limits TV series), and put pen to paper. The result was Underworld and, 10 producers later, it saw the light of day as a big screen feature. It appears that the originality of their ideas is being questioned though, as the script is reputed to be very similar to a 1994 Nancy A. Collins short story, The Love Of Monsters. Collins is so convinced of the plagiarism she has taken them to court.

Underworld is a strange, oddly compelling film. It is basically a derivative battle between vampires and werewolves that tries to incorporate a spin on war, class struggle, genealogy and in-breeding all wrapped up in a comic-book style and an industrial soundtrack.

Petite Kate Beckinsale, who first became known to American audiences via Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing, is cast as a gun-toting, building-leaping, warrior vampire action hero. In keeping with the Budapest industrial wasteland moodiness that goes with this genre lately, Beckinsale is dressed in skintight black PVC and pouts a lot. No matter how derivative the look and how many times it is compared to the style of The Matrix and Blade series, Beckinsale looks gorgeous in that outfit. After all, Canadian Wendy Partridge, who was costume designer on Blade II, designed these threads as well.

British actors Scott Speedman, Michael Sheen, Shane Brolly, Bill Nighy and Sophia Myles fill the other major roles. Although the performances are uneven, the accents all over the place and the plot unravels, the film still remains inexplicably entertaining. Oscar-nominated cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts (Howards End, A Room With A View), does an outstanding job in creating the atmosphere that, in the end, saves the film.

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