"Underworld" became a sleeper hit in 2003, despite a bit of a mixed critical reception. I thought the film worked as well as it did because of Kate Beckinsale, who was surprisingly convincing her first action role. The character is not exactly a strain on Beckinsale's acting ability, but her performance brings a bit of elegance, depth and gravity to what, in another film, could certainly be a completely one-dimensional character. Additionally, not only does she look the part, but she handles the stunt work quite well.
As for "Underworld: Evolution", the sequel continues to offer much of the same, seemingly figuring that, if it worked the first time, it'll work again. Thankfully, while not without a few significant faults, the picture is mildly entertaining at times. The second film essentially picks up where the first picture ended, with vampire Selene (Kate Beckinsale) and half-werewolf/half-vampire Michael (Scott Speedman) trying to go on the run after destroying (the movie even starts with flashbacks from the first movie) head vampire Viktor (Bill Nighy).
This time around, the bad guy is Marcus (Tony Curran), another, even more powerful ancient vamp brought back in order to take over the world - or something. As with the first film, "Underworld: Evolution" wants to work in loads of backstory about the characters/creatures and be an action picture. I wouldn't mind if the two films were all action or all about the story of the vampires and the werewolves, but they've tried to work in both sides in a way that ends up having neither quite as developed or satisfying as it could be.
As a result, the pacing is a bit stop-and-start and the bits about the mythology don't really add up to what they could had they been streamlined a bit (without being entirely developed, the backstory here starts to feel like filler at times) and tied together in a compelling manner that made more sense. Additionally, "Underworld: Evolution" remains as ultra serious as the first picture about its convoluted storyline.
The second picture's best element is still Beckinsale, whose performance is again chilly, yet still engaging. Others don't fare quite as well. Speedman's character still has a limited amount to do, and Curran doesn't make for that terrific of a bad guy. Derek Jacobi is enjoyable, but certainly underused in a minor role.
Technically, the picture is similar to the first, although mildly sleeker at times (it's working with a budget reportedly twice that of the original.) The steely blue cinematography returns again here, as do the reasonably good (although not flawless) visual effects. Production design, costume and other departments do fine work, as well. Although the action sequences are still fairly small in scale as these kinds of pictures go, they're mildly flashy in popcorn terms and have their moments (the Beckinsale and Speedman characters fleeing in a truck from a winged Marcus.) The fact that the picture is often in the woods instead of the city (like the first film) isn't in its favor, but at least the filmmakers attempt to give the environments some reasonably spooky atmosphere. Additionally, while not totally pushing the R-rating, the picture at least goes for the R in an era where most of these kinds of films are edited down for the more commerical PG-13.
Overall, "Underworld: Evolution" really could have been a bit more compelling had the plot been streamlined (it's a mess at times), but Beckinsale still gives it her best effort, resulting in a movie that's mindlessly watchable.
VIDEO: "Underworld: Evolution" is presented in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. Aside from a few little picky issues, the presentation was quite striking. Sharpness and detail remained mostly terrific, even in the darkest of some of the film's many dark sequences. A few moments appeared slightly softer than the rest, but most of the picture appeared crystal clear.
The picture did show a couple of slight instances of edge enhancement, but otherwise looked crisp and clear, with no artifacting or print flaws. Colors remained intentionally cold and subdued, but appeared accurately presented. Black level remained solid, as well.
SOUND: The film is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. The film's sound mix remained one of the best I've heard in quite a while. Although not consistently aggressive, the film's action sequences provide a completely immersive experience, with sounds moving all around the listening space. Surrounds are frequently put to work to deliver a wide array of sound effects (gunfire, helicopter flyovers, etc.) and ambience, as well as provide some reinforcement for the score. The film's action was also spread nicely across the wide front soundstage. Audio quality was impressive, as sound effects packed a very tight wallop, while dialogue remained crisp, clear and undistorted. Bass remained tight and deep.
EXTRAS: Writer/director Len Wiseman, 2nd unit director Brad Martin, production designer Patrick Tatopoulos and editor Nicolas de Toth participate in an audio commentary for the feature. The track is moderately enjoyable, as the group seems like they're having fun chatting about the picture and manage to throw out some good information about budget, actors, locations, effects and other issues.
We also get a group of 6 featurettes that go mildly in-depth into various aspects of the feature. They are: "Bloodlines: From Script to Screen" (developing the story for the second film), "The Hybrid Theory" (effects - both practical and CGI), "Making Monsters Roar" (creature design), "The War Rages on" (stunts/action), "Building a Saga" (production design) and "Music and Mayhem" (music and sound design.) The featurettes run around 10-15 minutes each.
Rounding out the package are a music video and lots of trailers for other titles from the studio. Oddly, no trailer for "Underworld: Evolution".
Final Thoughts: I still certainly like Beckinsale in the role, but "Underworld: Evolution" does suffer from some of the same problems as the first picture. Beckinsale's terrific, but the character and the performance deserve better. The DVD presentation is top-notch, with excellent audio/video and a nice selection of supplements. Rent it.
The Film C+