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Bloodlust: Subspecies III (1994)

Subspecies 3And so, the story of vampire bloodlust and creatures of the night lurking in shadowy Romanian locales from Full Moon Features continue!  As with all the sequels in this franchise, this film picks up exactly where the second one ended, and was designed that way with both the second and third films being shot back-to-back.  Bloodlust: Subspecies III continues to build upon its characters and arcs with fantastic success.  Where the second film had essentially all the setup, this film has a lot of pay-off, but does feel a little lacking since it is focused more on resolution than development.  Yet, it would not be the final sequel.

Radu (Anders Hove) has been destroyed, and Michelle (Denice Duff) has been captured by Radu’s vile mother, Mummy.  Mummy uses sorcery to bring Radu back to life, then magically transports them back to Castle Vladislas to escape their mortal pursuers: Michelle’s sister Rebecca (Melanie Shatner), Mel Thompson of the US Embassy (Kevin Blair), and Lt. Marin of the Bucharest police (Ion Haiduc).  Radu’s obsession with Michelle undermines his power over her.  She manipulates him into teaching her the secrets of vampire existence and how to harness her vampire powers.  Once she learns to survive on her own, she intends to destroy him, but Michelle’s plan is put into jeopardy when Rebecca and her allies plan to storm the castle to rescue her from Radu’s clutches.

This film definitely amps up the horror factor a little in interesting ways.  It mainly stems from Michelle’s further seduction to her vampire bloodlust which is beautifully orchestrated by Radu.  She begins to embrace being a vampire, but is unable to fully sever her humanity.  She feasts on the blood of the innocent, but cannot condemn her own sister to a similar gruesome fate.  Denice Duff beautifully portrays the painful inner turmoil of Michelle as her emotions are ripped and pulled in so many directions.  She looks gorgeous, sexy, and seductive as this femme fatale vampiress, but it’s that vulnerability which seeps through that makes her compelling and heartbreakingly sympathetic.  While she does seem like an inconsistent character going back and forth from subservient to adversarial, it sort of works with all that confusion and inner turmoil she’s dealing with.

Unexpectedly, the film gives us this peculiar moment of depth between Michelle and Radu.  Near the break of dawn, she wants to see the sunrise, and she inquires about what can kill a vampire.  She does so because she wants to die.  Radu then offers his creepy, undying love to her, but she scorns him with her eternal hatred.  She hates what he did to him, but there remains a constant struggle within her.  She hunts and quenches her thirst for blood, but she loathes what she has become.  Some of this sounds kind of odd because Radu is the furthest thing from a romanticized vampire.  That role was more akin to his now dead brother Stefan, but in the context of the film and series, this is a surprisingly ambitious moment.  The film could exist without such a scene, but it adds extra layers of depth and emotion to both characters that I really admire.

And Anders Hove is given even more depth and material to expand Radu with.  There’s this almost tragic quality to him by now in what he’s done to his entire family, and Michelle is now all that he has left to claim as his own.  Yet, Hove still delivers the ghastly horror and nightmarish creep factor superbly.  I just love how he continually tempts Michelle with indulging her vampire urges and desires.  Despite showing more emotional qualities, he is still a ferocious, bonafide evil vampire which is the core of his appeal.

I think Kevin Blair gets a little stronger material to work with this time out.  He gets to be more physically involved in the action, and be more assertive and proactive in the plot.  It’s still not a great performance by any means, but Mel becomes a more purposeful character in this film than the last one.  And of course, Melanie Shatner continues on in a nicely solid performance as Rebecca Morgan.  She was such a strong and enjoyable part of these two films that it is a terrible shame that both hers and Kevin Blair’s characters were unceremoniously written out of the fourth film.

However, in this film, I really came to enjoy Lieutenant Marin.  Regardless of any ADR work done on him, Ion Haiduc does a very entertaining and quirky job with the police investigator.  He’s got some light-hearted chemistry with Blair and Shatner.  Marin is a bit of a pesky detective keeping a tight watch on Becky and Mel throughout the film, and having some lightly humorous interactions.  It’s not one of those performances that takes you out of the seriousness of the film.  Marin isn’t quite convinced that vampires are prowling Romania, and so, he has a bit of a preposterous perspective on the events that are unfolding.  Yet, he is persistent in his investigation if only due to the peculiar nature of everything that’s occurring.

Now, with these two sequels being shot back-to-back we get a very consistent technical quality with make-up effects, cinematography, and production values overall.  So, it would be a little redundant to discuss them here, but in short, it’s all very solid stuff.  This sequel seems to be even visually darker with more heavy shadows, and fewer daylight scenes.  That is further enhanced by the great remastering job on the new DVD and Blu Ray releases.  And in the effects department, we are treated to the most elaborate and pleasing “demise” of Radu yet as our heroes attempt an escape at dawn, but of course, a resurrection is hinted at before the end with the appearance of the Subspecies themselves.

Writer and director Ted Nicolaou did a very fine job helming this franchise and steering it into a fascinating and entertaining direction.  These could’ve easily just been dry, low grade fare, but genuine effort was put into these films to make them enjoyable, creepy, and interesting.  The crux of it all really is the evolving dynamic between Michelle and Radu.  It is what drives the stories forward, and the actors in both roles put their all into it.  While the supporting cast is not all as great as Duff and Hove, there’s still decent qualities in the stories and characters to keep the movie entertaining.  Full Moon really loved their franchises, and were always leaving enough of a door open for another direct-to-video sequel.  Michelle’s story is not fully resolved in this film, but it would take a few extra years before we were treated to another sequel.

Watching these films again makes me realize that while there is bloodletting and ghoulish, artistic visuals, the Subspecies movies aren’t designed for high fright factor, but more for entertainment value and atmospheric, moody creepiness.  They are fun vampire films with some well executed emotional depth and interesting vampire lore that are beautifully shot and set in the heart of Romania.  The addition of a slightly humorous CIA specialist helping Becky and Mel storm the castle ended up being less than important to the plot, and more of a facilitating element to get Mel inside Castle Vladislas as Radu’s captive.  So, it has throwaway elements here and there, but in general, Bloodlust: Subspecies III really pays off everything pertinent that the series has built up at this point.  I will get around to a review of Subspecies IV: Bloodstorm, but that is quite an unusual film with peculiar quirks to it.


Bloodstone: Subspecies II (1993)

Subspecies 2The advantage of a sequel, sometimes, is to take what you did the first time and refine it.  You can build upon the ideas and story you established in the first outing.  That is the case with the Subspecies franchise.  The first film was good, but fairly basic in its story, technical quality, and ideas.  Starting with this first sequel, we have a wider expansion on all of this with superior production values, and a building of characters and storylines that make this a far more fascinating world to explore.

The centuries old conflict that has plagued the villages of Transylvania explodes into bloodshed. The mad vampire Radu (Anders Hove) becomes obsessed with Michelle (Denice Duff), who loves his half-mortal brother Stefan. In his quest to possess Michelle and the sacred relic, the Bloodstone, Radu destroys Stefan as he sleeps.  Michelle steals the Bloodstone and escapes from Radu’s castle. She finds a lair beneath a theatre in Bucharest and stalks the streets in torment, torn between her fading humanity and her growing thirst for blood.  She phones her sister Rebecca (Melanie Shatner) and begs her to come to Bucharest to help her. With the aid of Mel Thompson (Kevin Blair) of the US Embassy and Romanian policeman Lt. Marin (Ion Haiduc) she hunts for Michelle in the shadows of the sinister city.  Radu, desperate to regain the Bloodstone, seeks help from his monstrous mother, the ageless sorceress Mummy, who demands that he destroy Michelle before she destroys him.  Rebecca becomes Radu’s unwitting pawn in the race to find Michelle and the Bloodstone.

The superior quality of Bloodstone: Subspecies II over its predecessor is obvious right from the opening scene.  What were low quality video composite effects before are vastly superior visual effects that integrate much smoother with the live action elements.  The Bloodstone itself is also given a higher grade revamp.  The make-up effects are more refined giving extra texture and detail to Radu’s ghastly visage.  And we get Radu’s severely decayed witch mother that creates a very creepy visual that nicely complements Radu himself.  These are a gruesome pair that reek horror throughout the film.  While I don’t have facts to reference, it would seem that Full Moon put some extra money behind this sequel to give it a little more polish and technical enhancement. Even the score is more impressive.  It has more haunting qualities that forge a mysterious atmosphere.  The use of synthesizers feels more natural and high quality compared to the first film.  Overall, it’s just a more lush, richer score that really envelopes the film nicely.

The cinematography of Vlad Paunescu is a marked improvement here with many more camera moves adding to the film’s dramatic quality.  He still uses the Nosferatu-esque silhouette of Radu stretching across buildings to great effect.  There’s plenty of creepy, moody, atmospheric lighting in abundance here as Radu lurks in the shadows.  They highlight such an excellent, chilling presentation for these creatures of the night.  Plus, there’s just great use of subtle angles to give a sense of scale to the Romanian landmarks and practical locations.  Instead of being confined to a small, quaint eastern European town, Subspecies II delves us into Bucharest with a lot of gorgeous scenery to envelope the film in, and the visuals take advantage of that substantially.

In the role of Michelle, there was a casting change to Denice Duff, and I feel she was a very good fit for where these sequels took the character.  She’s a much more vulnerable, troubled, and emotionally shaken character after having been turned into a vampire.  This creates a compelling weakness in contrast to Radu’s bold, frightening, and powerful presence.  She might seem like the token cowering female in a horror movie, but the dynamic we get between Michelle and Radu becomes very interesting.  This character we care so much for is pulled into the sway of the villain, and is unable to break free of it.  While Laura Tate’s Michelle was portrayed as a much stronger woman, I don’t have a problem where Ted Nicolaou took her here.  As the film progresses, Duff’s Michelle Morgan succumbs to her vampire nature more making it increasingly difficult to resist the bloodlust.  And of course, as she descends into the sway of the vampire, she becomes a very beautiful, alluring sight.

In turn, the role of a stronger female is given to Michelle’s sister Becky, portrayed by Melanie Shatner who is indeed the daughter of William Shatner.  She has confidence, spirit, and courage which allows her to become a solid, assertive protagonist.  While Michelle struggles with her own vampiric compulsions and temptations, Becky attempts to find a way to save her alongside a small group of characters.  Kevin Blair, who was Nick in Friday The 13th, Part VII: The New Blood, does a fairly solid job as Mel.  He holds his own just fine, but doesn’t have an opportunity to standout amongst the crowd.

And again, Anders Hove delivers a wickedly excellent performance as Radu.  He seemed to up his game a little bit here now that Radu had a stronger storyline to follow.  He’s still as skin crawlingly creepy as ever, but seems more forceful, more powerful than before.  The presentation of Radu from a cinematography standpoint is far more stunning and ghoulish than before, and its only further aided by the improvements in his make-up design.

Now, this sequel is not heavy on the horror and bloodletting, but instead, focuses more on the mood and atmosphere while building up its story.  We do get some moments of horror and gore sprinkled throughout, and there is a very prominent air of mystique and lurking horror through most of the film.  However, Bloodstone: Subspecies II was designed to be one half of a whole as it was shot back-to-back with Bloodlust: Subspecies III.  I think the story and script Nicolaou put together is very good giving us enough emotional investment to carry us forward on both Michelle’s and Becky’s journeys.  It has a bit tighter pace than the first film, and more plot elements to propel the 87 minute film forward.

Following suit with their twentieth anniversary release of Subspecies, Full Moon has done a high definition remastering on the first two sequels, and the improvements are immediately noticeable.  This is a beautiful widescreen presentation where the heavy shadows are now deep blacks with solid contrast that still allows for a lot of detail to show through.  While the film has a limited and grounded color palette, the amber glows of daylight and fire are rich and strong.  I have the DVD release, and this is a very clean print that still looks like 35mm film.  I’ve read that the Blu Ray releases for both sequels are even superior to that of the first film, likely much to do the higher production values of both movies.

Director Ted Nicolaou also took over screenwriting duties for the sequels, and did take things in a bit different direction with characters and plot.  While it required a little bit of a concept change here and there, I think it was for the better.  Bloodstone: Subspecies II feels like the overall strongest film of the franchise.  While it doesn’t have the pay-off that the next film will have, by design, the building of plot and character elements make this more interesting than the first film, and that allows for more to be going on in the film than we get in the third movie.  The fourth movie, which I will review once that gets its remastered home video release, has many peculiar qualities to it, and so, if asked which Subspecies film appeals to me the most, it’s likely Bloodstone: Subspecies II.


Subspecies (1991)

Talk about old favorites from the VHS era of direct-to-video movies.  Subspecies came to us from Full Moon Entertainment which was all about that market with franchises like Trancers and The Puppet Master.  However, this was my taste with a Romanian shot vampire film.  I think I was mainly exposed to this franchise when they used to air on the Sci-Fi Channel back in the late 90s.  Those were my early days of horror, and thus, Subspecies remains a sentimental favorite.  Full Moon produced four films in this franchise over seven years, and in 2011, they re-released the first film in a Digitally Remastered 20th Anniversary Edition DVD and Blu-Ray.  Previous DVD releases were from the original VHS masters, and so, it’s nice to finally watch the film in a generally more appropriate widescreen presentation.  I will say that this is not a film for just anyone due to a few reasons which I will get to after the synopsis.

The evil vampire villain Radu (Anders Hove) returns to his hometown Prejnar, after spending years in exile. He confronts and murders his father, the King (Angus Scrimm), and steals the precious Bloodstone which is said to be bleeding from all saints.  It gives whoever drinks from it greater vampire power.  Meanwhile, two American schoolgirls team up with a local girl for work on Romanian culture. Radu becomes attracted to them and begins to stalk them through the shadowy town.  However, he runs into trouble when his half-brother Stefan (Michael Watson) helps and protects the girls from Radu’s grisly intentions.

Okay, first off, I do have to address the glaring blotch on the quality of the film.  You have to remember that this was a low budget direct-to-video movie from the early 1990s.  You’re going to get some bad visual effects, and I couldn’t help but laugh in enjoyment of this.  The good is that they are brief, and mostly at the very start of the picture.  These involve the Subspecies themselves, the little creatures that are spawned from Radu’s own self.  It’s probably stop motion animation coupled with a low grade video composite shot.  However, most subsequent shots of the Subspecies are far, far better with a proper optical film composite process, but there are still a few of those ugly ones later in the movie.  Those bad shots are cringe inducing, and really require you to have an acquired taste for this sort of thing.  As much as I wish they had been, the digitally remastered DVD doesn’t fix any of this.  They just restored the original film print for a digital video presentation, and it does look vastly better than it ever has before.  If you can sidestep these brief moments of low grade effects shots, you’ll find a rather enjoyable vampire film fronted by one of the best vampires ever committed to cinema.

The whole cast feels very authentic.  This is both due to the straight forward writing and fine casting.  The regular cast doesn’t have any true standouts, but they do all add to the flavor of the film.  Since this was all filmed in Romania, director Ted Nicolaou cast some local talent that is exceptional.  It might be low budget, but the acting is truly not low quality.  Laura Tate does a nice, solid job as Michelle, but the sequels would recast the role with Denise Duff who seemed to be better suited for where the sequels took the character.  Michael Watson is very good as Stefan.  He is the tall dark stranger that is able to capture the ladies’ hearts.  Watson makes Stefan charming but mysterious.  He has his secrets to keep, but is not an evil individual.  He shows grief for his now dead father, and fears his treacherous brother Radu.  Watson has fine low key chemistry and presence which serves the character very well.  Of course, we get a solid cameo appearance by Angus Scrimm as King Vladislav.  There was no better choice of who to play opposite Anders Hove at the beginning of the picture than Phantasm’s own Tall Man.

For my money, there is hardly a more vile, vicious, horrific, or creepy vampire in all of cinema than Radu Vladislav.  The make-up design is astounding creating a pale, nightmarish visage that actor Anders Hove sinks deeply into, and there are definite elements of Nosferatu in here with his elongated fingers and the more uncommon fang design.  These make Radu’s shadowy figure unmistakable, and that silhouette is used to excellent effect throughout the movie.  Also, that scratchy, strained, lusting voice sends chills up one’s spine.  Hove plunges himself fully into this role with a sadistic, salacious, and deliciously evil performance.  Radu is a creature with no conscience or morality.  He is consumed by his lust for power via the Bloodstone, and gains so much vile pleasure in everything he does.  His presence alone captivates an audience’s attention.  I like that he’s not romantic, but carries that aura of vampiric bloodlust seduction.  He’s not the handsome mysterious stranger that one would fall in love with, like Stefan.  It’s purely that enthralling vampire bloodlust which draws his victims in.  Radu is such a rich character that there was obvious fertile ground still left to explore with him, and so, intentionally leaving the ending open for the sequels was a fine choice.  He is truly one of the best vampires in cinematic history that most people have never known about.

The film is very nicely shot especially with the Castle Vladislav interiors.  Amidst the perfectly shadowy interiors, fiery torches accent each scene there.  The cinematography of Vlad Paunescu shows off the Romanian setting very well with some very nice wide shots of landscape and the castle itself.  We get a strong sense of its size and imposing nature.  Obviously, with a film of this level there aren’t many fancy or elaborate shots, but what we are given services the overall tone very well.  It’s very competently shot presenting some atmospheric and frightening visuals that effectively tell the story.  There were several composers who worked on the film, and I’m not sure why.  It is all a generally synthesizer based score that is not elaborate, but generally good and nicely conceived.  I’m sure, had the budget allowed for it, a full orchestral based score would’ve elevated the atmospheric quality of the film exponentially.

The story itself is quite simple and straight forward.  Screenwriters Jackson Barr and David Pabian gave us something that didn’t try to be more than what it could be.  Ted Nicolaou maintains a steady pace for a decently satisfying 80 minute film.  As is usual, the sequels would get more ambitious with their stories and plots, and delve us further into the mythology of the characters.  For this first outing, I think everyone did a good job.  There are some scares in the film, but by today’s standards, they’re fairly tame.  Such moments are certainly your standard vampire fare, but they are well executed never going for cheapness or silliness.  Nicolaou keeps a consistent dramatic tone throughout the film, and treats the horror aspects with respect.  Considering the marvelous age of computer generated digital effects we have now, it’s hard to look back to such a low budget film from the early 90s, and say Nicolaou probably made the best quality film he could with what he had.  However, I think that’s just about the truth.  I have no reference for what exactly the budget was on this film, but I think it’s very safe to say it didn’t exceed six figures.  Usually with effects films of this time I compare them to Terminator 2: Judgment Day or Jurassic Park, but there is no way anyone could rationally make such comparisons between a low budget direct-to-video movie and two multi-million dollar summer blockbusters.  Full Moon used what they could afford, but I’m sure some of the results probably left something to be desired even in 1991.

I would never say that Subspecies is a great film or a perfect franchise, but it’s vastly enjoyable.  It has its high marks, especially with Anders Hove’s amazing and consistent work as Radu, but it’s surely restricted by its direct-to-video budget.  A fifth film in the series has been prevented from happening due to Full Moon’s decline in budgetary resources.  Nicolaou and Hove are game for another sequel, but want to have the proper budget to do justice for the script they have.  Normally, one would say that making another sequel fourteen years after the last sequel would seem unlikely, but with a company such as Full Moon where all they really do are cult movies and direct-to-video features, anything is possible.  Their niche audience is there for the long haul.  Again, this is not a film for just anyone.  I strongly believe you would have had to have grown up in this era of low budget VHS movies to endure those low grade video effects.  I know everyone’s seen bad digital effects, but this is a whole different type of experience.  I’m sure the gradual pace of the film would not appeal to many modern audiences, either.  However, if you are a fan of these kinds of films, Subspecies is definitely worth checking out.  I genuinely think experiencing some of Anders Hove’s Radu is greatly worthwhile.  Even if the movie itself holds no weight with you, I believe this horrific and stunning character certainly has that potential.


Into The Night (1985)

I have rarely done reviews on comedies because it’s difficult to analyze them very much.  It’s either funny or its not.  Of course, different things make different people laugh, and so, it’s far more subjective than a drama or action movie.  However, there is this 1985 movie from John Landis that sparked my interest in the past year.  The  plot sounded like just my kind of thing.  A wild, humorous adventure of people on the run from dangerous criminals through the night streets of Los Angeles.  Sort of evoking the idea of a comedic Michael Mann film.  Unfortunately, this movie shares a lot of problems with Mann’s underwhelming and momentum starved Miami Vice feature film, which I have previously reviewed here.  There are a few bright spots, but the execution and pacing of this film are its greatest flaws.

Upon discovering that his wife is having an affair, depressed insomniac Ed Okin (Jeff Goldblum) drives to the airport on the suggestion of his friend and co-worker Herb (Dan Aykroyd), where he is abruptly ensnared by a beautiful Diana (Michelle Pfeiffer) into her escape from four armed Iranians.  Diana persuades Ed into driving her to various locations as he becomes entangled in her predicament.  As their adventure spirals further out of control, Ed leverages the truth from Diana who reveals she has smuggled priceless emeralds from the Shah of Iran’s treasury into the country, and is being pursued by numerous foreign criminal elements.  Ed and Diana cautiously navigate through this treacherous journey to where they become romantically connected.

Generally, I like the premise of this film.  It has the potential to be very entertaining, if put into the right hands.  However, this really wasn’t.  Comedy is really about timing, rhythm, and personality.  Into The Night has no momentum to carry the intended situational humor along at a necessary rhythm or pace.  For a film about people on the run from violent criminals, it is a fairly slow paced feature.  It is very unlike John Landis’ The Blues Brothers which had those high energy moments to keep the story exciting and funny.  There are a few exciting action sequences in this film, but they are very scarce.  The story also doesn’t have any quick witted personalities to reel a mass audience in.

I have enjoyed Jeff Goldblum’s talent since Jurassic Park playing some off-beat characters that add a different flavor to the story or cast.  I don’t find any flaw with him in this movie.  It plays to a more subdued version of his signature style.  Being a guy with insomnia who has gone an unknown number of days without proper sleep, he can’t be highly charismatic and energetic.  Ed has to be a more low key guy because of his fatigue and slowed wits.  Many of us have gone without a proper night’s rest, and that alone impairs your mental capabilities.  I, myself, have gone a full thirty-six hours without sleep, and even that is enough to muddle one’s synaptic sharpness.  There is nothing wrong with what Goldblum did in this movie.  Playing the straight man can make you the most hilarious person in the movie.  Tommy Lee Jones in the Men in Black movies comes to mind, but it only works in contrast to something else.

Instead, all the other characters are very one note playing up a shallow characterization, and adding little to what should have been a cast of lively, eclectic characters.  They are generally peculiar and diverse, but there are no strong or charismatic personalities to allow any humor to thrive through them.  It’s all too low key, and too many people playing the straight man offering no overt humor.  I feel it would’ve been better to have just Ed be the singular low key character surrounded by more verbose people to create a contrast.  His drab and mundane life would be interrupted by all these vibrant, off-kilter characters that carry him along on a very bizarre adventure.  I also find it hard to grasp is that none of the characters are even trying to be funny.  They yell and argue with one another with no punch line, no humorous twist to create a laugh, or they drift through the movie playing it straight with a dull thud.  Everything is far too underplayed to be funny.  The fact is, I found very little about this film to be funny except for the physical comedy.  A little of that comes from Goldblum, but mostly from the dialogue devoid group of Iranians (of which director John Landis is one of them).  However, there is one excellent exception to all of this.

In the entire movie, the only person I feel hit the personality and charisma of what it needed was David Bowie.  His British hitman character of Colin Morris really jumps in with the right subtle crazy tone and wit.  He’s very proper and polite, but is clearly a psychopath that is both scary and amusing.  Bowie has only two scenes, but he easily steals the show with a richly developed character that is a prime example of what this film should’ve offered in spades.  Colin is both smartly humorous and lethally dangerous.  That’s a dynamic rich with comedic potential.  It really is Bowie’s charisma and delicate sense of tone that makes Colin Morris work.  How he is able to shift from funny to fearsome creates it’s own comedy.  Bowie clearly had a lot of fun playing this role, which is not something I saw much of from anyone else.  A comedy should seem like everyone is enjoying themselves, getting into their characters and having a wonderfully amusing time at it.  None of the other actors seemed to be having a great time on screen playing up their characters and finding their chemistry with the cast.

Fortunately, the musical score by blues legend B.B King is the true shining point of the movie.  It surely gives the whole film a wonderful, unique feel that suits a mostly nighttime set story.  With the right pacing and wit from the film itself, B.B. King’s music could’ve enhanced the rhythm and personality of the movie, but as it is, the blues tracks are just a cool listen that occasionally boost the film’s atmosphere.

As with most comedies of this time period, the cinematography is not much to speak of.  It’s really just a point and shoot mentality, like a sitcom.  So, it’s nothing I will hold against it.  Comedy films today do a lot more with polishing up the visual flare and photography of the movie to enhance their production values, but in the bulk of the ‘80s, that approach did not often exist.  If Into The Night had a little more vision and ambition behind it maybe it would have a little more visual style.

Again, the premise had promise.  I surely believe a remake with modern pacing and filmmaking mentalities could potentially turn this around into a more effective comedy.  Frankly, Into The Night needed more momentum, a faster pace to bring out the humor in the story instead of dragging along from one underwhelming scenario to the next.  The villainous characters should’ve been larger than life and more over the top to bolster laughs.  Goldblum plays his role well reacting to the few outrageous moments with subtle genius.  Michelle Pfeifer was a nice female lead, but was not quite as endearing as I believe her character should’ve been.  There could’ve been more chemistry sparked between Goldblum and Pfeifer, but like with everything else here, it’s not motivated strongly enough to create something special.  I think the filmmakers believed this movie had wit, but they could never hit it on the mark.  Some reviews have said it tried too hard for laughs.  In a way, maybe that is correct.  This film goes to great lengths to have an elaborate storyline filled with a large cast of characters.  It tries hard to find a place and a moment for each of them, but it only comes off as overbloated.  Comedy should never be complicated.  It should be simple, or at least, streamlined.  You throw too many elements into the joke, and you lose the effect of the punchline.  I think that is a perfect way to sum up this movie.  While the storyline is not confusing, it is overworked and a little self-indulgent.  By evidence of the massive amount of filmmaker cameos, there is a self-indulgent mentality in the approach to this feature film.  John Landis had a short window of inspired cinematic comedy brilliance, but it was more than twenty years ago.  Into The Night was a definite misstep during that high point era, but movies like Beverly Hills Cop III  and Blues Brothers 2000 show just how far and hard his movie career has fallen.

There are films I enjoy because of their potential, and to some degree, this is one.  A story that could’ve been made into an excellently hilarious film, but just achieved nearly nothing of that potential.  The film has shown up regularly on HBO or Cinemax in the last several months.  So, you shouldn’t need to spend money to check it out.  Just program your DVR if you’re fortunate enough to get those premium channels.  If not, it’s not a real loss.  There are countless more successfully funny movies out there to give you a healthy laugh than this one.


Unknown (2011)

Unknown was a lot more drama than actual action, despite what the marketing campaign tried to sell us.  Obviously, the studio was attempting to capitalize on the success of Liam Neeson’s action thriller hit Taken by marketing this movie as such, but this is hardly in the same league.

Liam Neeson stars as Dr. Martin Harris who was come to Berlin with his wife Liz (January Jones) for a biotechnology summit.  However, attempting to return to the airport for a piece of luggage, he is involved in a car accident which leaves him in a coma for multiple days.  When he awakens, his wife suddenly doesn’t recognize him and another man (Aidan Quinn) has assumed his identity.  Ignored by disbelieving authorities and hunted by mysterious assassins, he finds himself alone, tired and on the run. Aided by an unlikely ally in the taxicab driver who saved his life (Diane Kruger), Harris delves into a dangerous mystery forcing him to question his sanity, his identity and just how far he’s willing to go to uncover the truth.  Pieces gradually interlock to reveal more than Martin ever could’ve imagined about himself, and what is truly at work that he is now compelled to combat.

I’ve seen both positive and negative reviews praise the premise of the movie and its originality.  I do not know what movies these critics have been watching because my thoughts are to the contrary.  My main gripe is that the plot is a near carbon copy of The Bourne Identity with a few varying elements, but at its core, its the same basic plotline only not executed nearly as well.  Both Unknown and The Bourne Identity were based on novels, but the novel that Unknown was based on, Out of My Head by Didier Van Cauwelaert, was published twenty-four years after Robert Ludlum’s well known novel.  So, there’s nothing really new to see here, and no one even attempts to disguise it.  Many films have similar plots, but the really good, even great filmmakers find ways to make it appear fresh, exciting, and interesting.  Unknown did not achieve that for me.  It’s not terrible, not at all, but it just comes off as not trying hard enough.  There are very good actors in this, but none of them seem to really put their full heart into it.  The film comes off as passable, not exceptional.

Neeson turns in a fine performance that carries the film nicely, possibly making it better than anyone attempted to make it, and of course, the action requirements are not a difficulty for him.  Nothing here is a challenge for him, which may be a shortcoming of the movie, but he doesn’t slack off at all.  It just doesn’t give him anything new to wrap his talent around.  Of course, that’s not something I really have any issue with.  What did bother me was how underused Frank Langella was in this movie.  His appearance as a sort of an old government “spook” is painfully underplayed to the point that any actor could’ve filled the role and done it just as well.  That’s a terrible remark to couple with Langella because he is an immensely powerful, enveloping actor with a wide range of talents.  He has inhabited so many diverse roles throughout his career that it’s sad to see him take on a role that seems like a quick, phoned in paycheck.  I can’t imagine he’s hard pressed for quality acting roles.  However, this does work as an example of the movie.  Whatever talent is involved is not motivated to push for anything better than mediocre.  It’s all standard fare, average offerings.

The action is very good when it happens, but there’s hardly enough to sustain momentum or interest for the plot.  I didn’t remain intently invested in the characters, or was as convinced of their motivations as better films have been able to do.  Circumstances and plot twists just don’t impact deeply enough to create believable reasons for the characters to push forward with their intentions.  Again, this is due to no one giving an extra effort to engage an audience’s invested interest.

The cinematography was entirely standard fare for the genre these days.  More handheld, shaky cam, fast editing stuff.  I’m beyond tired of that, and I wish filmmakers would get more inventive and clever when filming action sequences.  There are so many untapped ideas in that realm, it’s aggravating how many films just do the exact same thing every single time.  There was a time when action film directors had more self-identity and originality in the look and style of their own movies.  That time seems almost entirely behind us, now.  Why that is, I do not know, but this method of action cinematography and editing wore out its welcome a very long time ago.  Director of photography Flavio Labiano and editor Timothy Alverson really have nothing notable on their filmographies, and if they keep up this unoriginal, uninspired work, they won’t get any.  The same goes for the screenwriters and the director Jaume Collet-Serra.  Seriously, the director of the House of Wax remake?  I think that explains enough.

As I said at the start, this doesn’t have enough action to be really classified as a action film.  It’s closer to a dramatic mystery thriller.  It’s a lot of Martin Harris running around Berlin trying to piece together information and struggle with his sanity and perceptions.  Action sequences are not all that frequent, and again, when they do occur, they are poorly presented.  The quiet dramatic moments are nicely handled, mostly due to Neeson’s talent.  However, films ultimately fail when they market themselves as something they are not, and that occurred with Unknown.

I’ve seen review quotes stating this film’s superiority over Neeson’s previous action thriller Taken.  Personally, Taken was a far better crafted, more tightly executed, more emotionally investing, and more exciting action thriller.  This doesn’t have the pace, energy, or momentum to rival that film, and the studio would’ve been wiser to avoid such comparisons.  However, if they hadn’t they might have lost some box office revenue.  Even on its own merits, this is still a mediocre movie.  I can’t really recommend it because there are so many superior films in the genre, and other films that have done this premise with more success.  It’s not outright bad, but it’s not particularly good, either.


Underworld: Evolution (2006)

For whatever reason, I chose to give this sequel a fair chance despite my very negative reaction to the first film.  It might’ve been my extreme absence from seeing new horror films in the last few years, or just that it may have seemed a bit more developed than the first (by way of trailers and such).  Whatever the case, on its opening theatrical weekend I caught a matinee showing of it, and yes, I actually garnered some enjoyment from it.  Before I get into the critique, let’s familiarize you with the premise of Underworld: Evolution.

Eight centuries ago
unknown to humanity, a blood feud raged
between a ruling class of vampires
and a rebellious legion of werewolves
known as lycans.

Legend tells that the war began with two brothers,
the immortal sons of Alexander Corvinus

Markus, bitten by bat,
became the blood leader of the vampires.

William, bitten by wolf,
became the first and most powerful lycan.

This sequel picks up just exactly where the first film ended.  The lies about the war between vampire and lycan have been uncovered, many former allies and enemies lie dead, and the vampire death dealer Selene (Kate Beckinsale) and the first hybrid of the two immortal species, Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman), are now on the run.  Meanwhile, vampire elder Markus (Tony Curran) has been revived.  He is the very first and most powerful vampire, and he shows it from the very first minute on screen following his resurrection.  He absorbs the blood memories of the lycan doctor that was slain in the crypt, and comes up to speed on all the recent betrayals and treachery.  He goes hunting down Selene to learn all she knows, more than even she is aware of.  Markus knows that Viktor deserved the end he got, as the pre-title flashback sequence shows, but the intentions of Markus are much more frightening, volatile, and lethal than those in the previous film.  As Markus tries to move his plans forward, Michael & Selene hideout wherever possible, and eventually become more intimate with one another.  More secrets and hidden truths begin to unfold, and Markus’ ultimate plan is unveiled as he wants to create a new race forged by the purest of both vampire and lycan.  Unknowingly, Selene holds one major key to Markus’ plans, but there is much vengeance for him to reap along the way.  Ultimately, our heroes must evolve to battle this new enemy or perish in its wake.

One of the things that I first enjoyed about this sequel were the more exciting and unique action sequences.  No more are we treated to shootout after shootout, but we have much more physical combat on top of some nice chase sequences.  Every action sequence is different from the last, whether in context or geography.  It made this film much more lively and intense.  Secondly, Scott Speedman really comes more into his “evolved” character of the vamp-lycan hybrid Michael Corvin.  He’s involved in more smash mouth brawls and chase scenes.  He’s a more active member in the story despite having much less pivotal importance to it instead of riding the wild wave carrying him along to unknown destinations.  Selene still does much to protect and guide him as he becomes more familiar with what he is, but he’s not helpless by a long shot.  Also, the design of the hybrid is more evolved as well, and yes, I am using the subtitle of this film a lot.  However, it is justified because there’s a lot of evolution with this sequel.  Anyway, with a bigger budget, but not an over inflated one, this film has some upgraded effects that truly benefit the characters and story.  Corvin’s hybrid creature design is more satisfying to me as it takes on a few more werewolf characteristics, and the creature itself tends to be more animalistic.

There are fewer characters this time around, but the depth of them is much improved.  There’s more emotion here, especially with Selene.  She’s no longer some cold killing machine, trying to fight back against everything and everyone.  She becomes intimate with Michael, opening her emotions to him, and there’s no denying their love for one another.  With no other allies, Michael is all she has, and Selene is the only one that Michael can latch onto.  Without each other, I doubt they could survive emotionally or psychologically for too long.  One of the new characters is Tanis (Steven Mackintosh), a vampire historian that has been exiled for about three centuries, or so it was believed.  He’s a weasel, a real piece of scum that shouts back to the majority of the cast of characters in the previous film, but is easily more enjoyable than despicable.  Not surprisingly, Tanis has interesting ties to Lucian .  Another new character is portrayed by Sir Dereck Jacobi, a revered British actor of stage and screen.  His character is wholly pivotal to absolutely everything, and is greatly responsible for cleaning up after the messes of both the vampires and lycans.  He helps keep their underworld as hidden as possible – mainly because he’s partly responsible for its existence – but none have been aware of his existence until now.

And the new villain, Markus, proves to be quite an adversary for all, especially Selene & Michael.  He certainly has a swirl of emotions being manipulated and opposed by Viktor for centuries.  He seeks to free his brother William, the most ravenous and powerful lycan ever, and together, no one will be able to survive them.  Markus is truly frightening and indiscriminately lethal.  He knows what he wants, and will tear through whomever he must to achieve his god-like goals.  He’s not as intriguing a villain as Lucian was (who actually proved to not be the villain at all in the first film), but he still does not disappoint.  While Lucian was someone with more carefully laid plans (one part revenge, one part survival for his species) who had patience to carry them out subversively and work with a higher level of honor than those around him, Markus is purely about revenge, and has no use for being subversive.  He’s very upfront and direct with his approach to achieving his goals.  Being as powerful as he is, he has no fear, and thus, destroys whatever he wishes.  Tony Curran portrays him fantastically through and through.  I so enjoyed his performance – the strength, the confidence, the anger, the defiance – it was powerhouse.  He easily makes the movie, and he is definitely a marvelous actor I intend to pay close attention to.

The effects in this film are even more impressive than the first film.  There are a lot of effects here that you would swear are practical, but don’t seem logistically possible.  The visual effects department deserves major credit for their amazing work here!  There’s not a bad or cheesy piece of CGI here, if you can even decipher what is CGI to begin with.  In any case, this is a major visual effects achievement, and everyone knows that bad CGI can completely kill any movie (especially one with such a serious tone as this one).  Yes, the dead serious tone persists here, but there’s a couple of smirks to be had here and there.  Frankly, there’s enough depth and variation of emotion throughout the film to make it more lively and entertaining than the original Underworld.

The music of Underworld remains the same with the industrial rock remixes and such.  The score is also fantastic, and possibly a bit more dynamic than before (mainly due to the demands of the story and action).  We get a lot more action early on, and I would have to say that there is a higher degree of gore here.  It’s not a massive amount of gore, but more gruesome since Markus is a far more violent character than any we saw in the original Underworld.  There’s also less “technobabble” this time around because there’s nothing new to describe in relation to it.  Simply put, all the medical jargon and related exposition more or less applies here as well.  It’s already been established in the first film, and so, there’s no need to say it all again.  There’s ultimately less exposition overall, but there’s still plenty of back story to explore.

Basically, I found this movie enjoyable.  The action is far fresher than that in the first movie.  There’s easily much more emotional depth, allowing you to really feel more for these characters, and to become closer to them.  There’s not as much mystery this time around, and the scope of it all might seem smaller.  This is partly due having fewer characters than before, and this film takes place more outside in mountainous regions than inside the mansion where there was a lot of production designs to show off (as well as extras).  Although, I believe Underworld: Evolution makes up for it on many levels.  Also, after viewing the extended cut of the original Underworld, I believe both films are equal, but on different levels.  What one lacks, the other makes up for.  One film’s weakness is the other’s strength, and so, they even out in the end.  I believe if you melded both films together into one, capitalizing on both of their strengths, you’d have one bad ass movie, but instead we get two that are pretty damn good in their own ways.


Underworld: Extended Edition (2003)

After seeing and enjoying the sequel Underworld: Evolution on its theatrical opening weekend, I decided to give the original film a second chance with the extended edition.  It was clear then that I should’ve given Underworld a second viewing quite a while before then.  With that viewing, things became more enjoyable, and more importantly, coherent in a second viewing (even with two solid years between viewings).  Anyway, this version of the film has 12 minutes of additional footage with 11 minutes of replacement footage.  The audio commentary with director Len Wiseman and cast members Kate Beckinsale & Scott Speedman help to mark the new footage (quite important to me only seeing the theatrical version once).  More back story is revealed on our leads, and a few other tidbits are injected.  Now, there’s really no extra gore here, and so, don’t let the “unrated” moniker get you excited.  It’s just a marketing tool for horror fans, plain and simple.  Now, I will endeavor to make a far briefer synopsis this time out.

A war between vampires and lycans has raged for numerous centuries, but the reasons why there ever was a war is unknown to most everyone.  Digging into the past is forbidden amongst vampires, and that’s just the least of what’s forbidden.  There are many unknowns that none question, but the vampire death dealer Selene (Kate Beckinsale) soon raises all those questions.  After tracking a pair of lycans and subsequently engaging in a shootout in a subway station, she becomes convinced that they were after a human named Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman).  She persists in unraveling this mystery, even more so when met with resistance from the decadent second-in-command Kraven (Shane Brolly).  He pushes so hard against her that she becomes even more suspicious, and goes to desperate measures.  She awakens elder vampire Viktor (Bill Nighy) a century ahead of schedule, and seeks his help.  With his power of command and physicality, he easily reaffirms control of things.  Meanwhile, the lycans’ plan slowly is revealed, but not fully until far later in the film.  In any case, this plan has everything to do with Michael’s bloodline, and with the survival of the lycan species.  Selene soon becomes Michael’s only ally when it seems all are gunning for him, and neither of them know why, not truly.  Ultimately, all the lies, deceit, deception, and secrets are made known, and the consequences of them all will change everything for both species.

When I first watched this film, it was very confusing and tiring on a mental level.  There were so many plot twists and turns that from one scene to the next I didn’t know who was a villain, an ally, or a hero.  I was completely lost on the geography of this plot, let alone where these characters stood within it.  By the end, nearly everyone you believed was a protagonist or an antagonist flipped sides, and it was all very confusing.  I felt like Michael Corvin wondering just, “what the fuck is going on?”  This time through, I was fully aware of where the plot was going, and everything made much more sense.  A second viewing allows you to be “in the know” about the intentions, schemes, and treachery of all.  It allows you to enjoy the film more since you are not trying to re-decipher the plot every few minutes.

Now, I still find the action sequences to be lacking.  A shootout is a shootout – practically every action flick has one.  Granted, it would be silly for the vampires and lycans to be doing battle with swords and battle axes since these are technologically evolved times, but after seeing the sequel, Underworld: Evolution, there are other ways to create multiple action sequences unique within one film and make them exciting and dynamic.  Since I had already seen this movie, I knew what to expect from the action sequences, and so, I was able to enjoy them more.  But still, they could have been much more impressive and unique.

I still give major praise for the effects in this film, both practical and computer generated.  They are exponentially better than the cheesy, third-rate CGI in Van Helsing, and nothing here comes off cheap.  It’s all wonderfully designed and executed.  After watching some of the featurettes on disc two of this set, I got to appreciating the development of this film even more than before.  I do retain the belief that this film could have benefited from a bit less dreary visuals.  The desaturated colors really bring down the potential beauty of this motion picture.  The Crow absolutely had an insane amount of darkness, and a heavily gothic look to it, but it is a beautiful film.  It didn’t use desaturated colors, but instead used the contrast of light and dark.  I believe the same could’ve been done here, and made the visuals much more compelling.  Still, the cinematography is fabulous, and the production design is deeply intricate.

The music as well as the costume design is directly in line with that of The Matrix – industrial rock remixes and tight black leather n’ latex.  Yes, it’s been done to death, but it certainly works fantastically well here.  Kate Beckinsale looks all the more beautiful and sexy the more you see her.  The lycans have a far more down n’ dirty look as they live a more low class lifestyle than the aristocratic vampires.  I guess leather attire will always be some indefinable symbol of coolness.  So, despite my previous negative attitude towards said choice in costume design, I really won’t knock it now.  It’s cool, and I’ll leave it at that.

The quality of the acting doesn’t change in this extended cut, we just get more of it.  I speak nothing negative about it, and knowing where things ultimately lead up to not only in this film, but the next, I truly understand the coldness of some characters.  Those that survive this film definitely show far more depth in the sequel.  Still, I still have to praise Michael Sheen for bringing such a great character like Lucian to life.  He does an incredibly intriguing job with him, and by far, proves Lucian to be the most in-depth and emotionally invested character here.  The rest of the cast has acting chops to spare, and while Speedman may seem miscast in this film, I think him coming into his own in the sequel really makes up for anything he may appear to lack in this film.

Again, what this extended cut gives us is more character moments.  These are nice extra elements, but don’t change the complexion of the story or characters much at all.  They just add some additional depth and back story.  The pace of the film was already pretty slow, and thus, this only elongates the existing pace.  There is a sex scene between Kraven and Erika, but there’s nothing gratuitous about it.  It’s sexy and lustful, but no real nudity  Beyond that, there are a few bits and pieces of scenes added back in that were likely just cut for time originally.

All in all, with two years later and a fresh perspective along with the knowledge of the sequel with me, I appreciate Underworld much more.  The story does drag in the middle (even more so in this extended cut), but it really picks up near the end.  I recommend that anyone who may have disliked or was disappointed with this film should give it a second viewing.  Being aware of the plot and its progression will allow you to appreciate the overall film much more.  Your mind is more free to enjoy it instead of trying to keep up with plot twists.  Simply put, you’ll spend much less time being confused, and more time enjoying yourself.  Checking out this extended cut should be an option for you, but it doesn’t offer anything greatly important regarding the plot, let alone the action, but does offer more on the characters themselves.  Theatrical or extended is perfectly fine for a second viewing.


Underworld (2003)

I have become a fan of this franchise based on its potential.  I don’t think any entry, so far, has really been great overall.  One entry excels in areas that others fall short in.  It’s hard to do a straight update on my old review of this film.  There are two reviews I did.  One from my initial viewing of the theatrical version, and one from the extended edition which serves as a more informed second viewing.  So, what follows is merely a polished up version of my original 2004 review of Underworld.  Bare in mind that this is a first reaction review, and does not reflect my current sentiments on the film after multiple viewings.  For that perspective, check out my review of Underworld: The Extended Edition.

When I first heard about the premise for this movie, I thought it was gonna be one to watch.  A must-see, even.  Simply put, that premise was the dynamic of Romeo & Juliet set in the world of vampires & werewolves.  I was so very excited to see this movie!  Through all the trailers and TV spots.  With all the months passing by, I only became more anticipatory of this film’s release.  But in the week of the theatrical release, I starting reading the reviews.  They were bad.  Even the horror sites were saying it was a dull, boring, unoriginal, unimaginative movie.  Bloody Disgusting, Diabolical Dominion, and Creature Corner all gave it BAD reviews.  After that, and numerous visits to RottenTomatoes.com, I chose against going to see this film that I had been so anxious to see all year long.  However, after its release on DVD, I finally decided to plunk down some bucks to rent it, and all I can say is that all the reviews were right.  But before I go any further, let’s TRY to lay down the plot for this quite dull and highly non-innovative film.

Kate Beckinsale plays the vampire Selene, a Death Dealer whose job it is to hunt down and kill off the Lycans (aka ‘Werewolves’).  At film’s start, she gives us a nice expositional voice over to help with the film’s general setup.  A war between the two species has raged for 600 years, and despite the fact that no one truly knows how it all began (digging into the past is forbidden amongst vampires), the war continues.  Though, the vampires believe that the war is soon to end, it would leave Selene’s kind, the Death Dealers, as an obsolete faction among the decadent lifestyle the vamps have adopted.  Meanwhile, two werewolves are shadowing the footsteps of a mortal man, Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman), but for what purpose, that is not revealed for another HOUR, maybe more!  A shoot-out goes down in a subway station between the vamps and the ‘wolves, amongst humans.  We get our first look at the werewolf transformation, and it’s not half bad.  Now, at this point I would like to rush the plot synopsis quickly along, but there is too much to simply sum in one paragraph, but I’ll try.

On the vampire side of things, it is only a short time before they are to reawake one of their elders from a centuries’ old sleep.  These elders are held in a tomb of sorts inside the Victorian-esque mansion all these vampires live in.  In the meantime, their acting leader is Kraven (Shane Brolly), a very self-minded bloodsucker who is Selene’s greatest obstacle.  This becomes even more evident when Selene’s interest is peaked as to why the Lycans were following Corvin, and she ultimately is forced to go against everyone’s orders to discover the truth.  While investigating Corvin at his apartment, a small pack of Lycans come looking for him, including their leader, Lucian (Michael Sheen).  During this encounter, Lucian takes a heap of a bite out of Michael’s shoulder, and damning him to become a werewolf, in time.  At the tail end of this encounter, an amazing stunt is performed where Sheen chases after Selene’s luxury import car, and just runs up atop of it.  How it’s performed, I’ll tell you later, but no wirework was involved.

Anyway, to find guidance and wisdom as to what plans the ‘wolves might be forging, Selene awakens the one who made her into a vampire: Viktor (Bill Nighy).  He is awakened in a manner not far off from Hellraiser.  He must be regenerated via the absorption of blood, but they throw a nice twist on it.  Now, even though Viktor has been awakened, Selene STILL is faced with adversity where she believed that she would have an ally.  It only forces her into an even more rebellious state to uncover what treachery has occurred amongst these immortal enemies.  There is, of course, more to this film, but I will not divulge such spoilers to you.

Yes, I know, that was more than one paragraph, but I tried.  I guess the first thing that I realized with this movie was that the action sequences are really nothing new.  How many shoot-outs have we seen in movies?!  Far too many to even consider counting, I’m sure.  And that’s basically the only way the vamps and the lycans fight.  They pull out guns and a few other weapons.  Both sides now have bullets designed specifically to kill their rival species.  The lycanthropes have irradiated ultraviolet bullets that burn vampires alive.  From that idea, the vampires invent a bullet that releases silver nitrate directly into the lycans’ blood stream.  Lycans themselves are allergic to silver.  Most have the ability to force a silver bullet from their body, but the liquid silver injected into their veins is a near instant death.  However, a lot of other rules are tossed completely out the window such as vampires now have reflections, don’t seem to have any bit of flying ability, and well, don’t really have much powers at all.  They are undead bloodsuckers that are incredibly agile, nothing more.  And any charm or veracity that have become characteristic staples of vampires are certainly drained from these vampires.  The filmmakers were going for a more biological, scientific angle, but in the process, eliminate much of the powers of the creatures.  Of course, the werewolves don’t seem to have much of a change, except for the fact that they can now switch between their two forms at will, but it takes a full moon to initially trigger their transformation after they’re first bitten.  Also, no one has ever survived a bite from both vampire and lycan.

Now, since the action sequences are tired and bland, the next question has to be, “is the movie fun at all?”  No.  Everything and everyone is taken very seriously here.  Not a singular joke is cracked, not one witty play, nothing humorous of the sort makes its way into this film.  Which makes for a very dull 121 minutes.  I don’t even think anyone in this movie even cracks a damn SMILE!  Also, the film never really delves much past the surface of these characters to give us any sort of emotional involvement with them.  And in fact, the only character I really, really liked was Lucian.  Michael Sheen has a lot of charisma and sharp theatrical sense to give the lycan leader a strong gravitas.  His is the only one with a heartfelt emotional motivation for his actions that are not wrapped up in lies and deception.  Lucian also has a great look which supplements the feral lycan quality.  Despite Sheen’s shorter stature, he really is a strong presence that commands respect, even next to his hefty second-in-command Raze.  Kate Beckinsale IS quite seriously sexy in her skin-tight PVC leather / rubber cat suit and corset, but it’s a hard thing for an attractive young woman to NOT be sexy in such an outfit.  Her character is the heroine, but despite the script’s best efforts, she’s rather mono-emotional (as practically all of the characters are).  It’s not an issue of acting quality, but the tone of the film and characters that creates such a heavy, dry movie.  Bill Nighy is fantastic as Viktor bringing his always intense emotional sense to the vampire elder.  He also commands his scenes with theatrical breadth and subtlety.  Shane Brolly as the snake-in-the-grass, short tempered vampire Kraven can feel a little over-the-top at times.  The character is wonderful as it becomes refreshing to know that, at the end, he is just as vile and self-centered as he first appeared to be.  Still, the rage and shouting could’ve been turned down a few notches to make him a little more intimidating.

Now, we hit the assessment of the plot (and yes, the film feels, at least, as long as this review).  The plot is very tiresome.  Not that it’s repetitive or anything like that, but because we keep getting more and more elements added to this plot without reason.  Well, without reason until the last 30 minutes of the motion picture.  And by that time, you really don’t know who to root for.  Those who you believed to be the villains aren’t really doing anything villainous, but some of the despised characters are despised for a reason.  Although, some of the protagonists become deserving of all that they have coming to them.  So, through the whole film you’re acting like Michael Corvin after being bit saying, “What the HELL is going on?!”  You get tired of waiting for the plot to progress to a point where you actually know WHAT the real plot is.  And once you get there, there’s not much left of the film to hold any bit of interest in you.  The fact is, the screenplay is structured in such a way that you have no clear understanding of the plot’s landscape, or where any of the characters stand in that landscape until the final act of the film.  Selene herself doesn’t know who to fight against either until that point.

And for the final bit of assessment, the special effects.  I am so very glad that director Len Wiseman chose to do as much of the effects practically as possible.  The werewolf designs are very impressive, and that certainly helps to inject much to the feel of the film, keeping it as grounded as possible.  Though, the werewolves don’t happen to showcase much movement or flexibility in this form, but when they’re crawling rabidly along the walls, they are very animated (not in the CG sense).  Also, remember that stunt I mentioned earlier involving Michael Sheen running up atop an accelerating automobile?  That was executed using a tarp of sorts attached to the back end of the car, and Michael Sheen simply ran up that tarp while the car was in motion, and thus, making him seem like he was actually running at 35 miles per hour.  Very cool, yet simple stunt.  You can catch that on the DVD.  Now, the vampires don’t have much makeup of effects work aside from their fangs and contact lenses, but Viktor is a whole ‘nother story.  As he goes through a regenerative process, a series of progressive effects were designed for him.  They were full body casts, no suits.  This is well documented on the DVD’s featurettes, and it is a make-up effects process that was well worth the time and effort.  However, what was very disappointing was the design of the vampire-lycan hybrid.  It seems highly underdeveloped as it does not work as a pay-off at all.  There is nothing special or intimidating about this design.  It showcases nothing of feral strength or creative ingenuity.  Basically, it is a vampire with a more pronounced rib cage with deep, dark blue skin.  His abilities are more impressive, but it’s still a grave disappointment on both counts, to me.  Nothing impressive at all, as is practically everything with this movie.

So, to sum it up.  Underworld is a mix of Blade and The Matrix (maybe a bit of The Crow woven in), but it lacks any of what made those such entertaining films.  There’s no fun, no excitement, or character depth to be had in Underworld.  A whole boat load of never ending plot developments that just weigh this film down far, far too much.  Add that to the fact that the characters’ emotions are practically as flat as a board.  Also, I agree with a few others that the role of Michael Corvin was miscast.  Scott Speedman just doesn’t play it with anything but weakness.  And when the finale comes, he is not one bit convincing as the bad ass that he should’ve been.  While the cast is full of talent, there’s very little to nothing for them to showcase that talent, aside from Sheen.  And as I’ve said many times, great creature and makeup effects do not a good film make.  And as strange as this may sound, I stick with a quote by George Lucas, circa 1983: “Special effects are just a tool, a means of telling a story. People have a tendency to confuse them as an ends unto themselves. A special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.”  That is very true.  The makings of a good film start in the screenplay.  If you don’t have that solid foundation in place to build upon, it doesn’t matter if have the best special make-up, visual, or creature effects ever in the history of cinema.  The quality of your film will falter.

Now, wrap ALL of this together and add in the most obvious and cliché of sequel segue endings, and you’ve got Underworld.  A greatly disappointing film that could’ve been a great, fun ride with fabulous creature effects, stunts, and at least, somewhat interesting characters.  The script was done all wrong, and it never opens itself up for some fun.  Everything is played with such earnestness and grim drama that it’s hard to gain entertainment value out of it.  We get so much plot, a good deal of back story, but belated answers and no character depth.  Plus, the look of this film is tired as well.  All blue and gray filters that make the film’s look as grim as everything else in it.  The whole movie takes place at night, in shadows, indoors, or in subterranean environments.  It makes the film feel very visually dull and bland.  And I’m not even gonna BOTHER critiquing the leather-heavy costume department as this has been a BIG trend since The Crow, or even more so since The Matrix.  Can’t seem to outlive this trend, can we?  Simply put, this is a painfully derivative film that takes ideas, production designs, costumes, action set pieces, and pretty much anything else you can think of from other sources.  And other, better ideas that could’ve injected some life into this rather dead film are jettisoned for bland, tired ones.

So, you think this review has gone on long enough, huh?  Well, now you know how long this film feels.  In the very conclusion, Underworld – a disappointment?  Indeed.  Greatly.


Double Team (1997)

Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dennis Rodman.  Far too strange of a pairing to ignore.  You throw Mickey Rourke into the mix as the villain, and how can you really say no?  Okay, so this wasn’t a blockbuster, and even plans for a sequel never materialized.  I was not allowed to see the film in theatres at the time, punishment for getting poor progress reports in high school that week.  So, I discovered it on VHS, and now, re-discovered it on a decent widescreen DVD.  I can understand why this got negative reviews, but the fact is, Double Team wasn’t trying to be anything more than what it was – a fun, exciting, and highly entertaining action film.

Van Damme portrays CIA counter-terrorist operative Jack Quinn who runs one final mission before retirement to start a family with his lovely wife Kathryn.  Years later, with his pregnant wife in the South of France, Quinn is paid a visit by an old colleague to rope him back into action to help bring down his old nemesis Stavros (Mickey Rourke).  A man who once worked for the good guys when they needed someone with the stomach for dirtier work to be done, but has long since worked for the other side supplying arms and other contraband.  In prepping this operation in Antwerp, Jack taps eccentric arms dealer Yaz (Dennis Rodman) who himself “doesn’t play with the bad boys anymore, just the good guys.”  They strike a fun chord with one another, making a memorable impression.  However, Quinn misses the target, and the mission is a failure.  Stavros loses both his son and girlfriend in this violent encounter.  In the aftermath, Quinn is sent to an island called “The Colony” where former intelligence agents and assassins work together to counteract terrorist plots around the world.  Jack is ushered through this new environment by former operative Goldsmyth (Paul Freeman).  However, Jack seeks escape from the seemingly inescapable island after he receives a message from Stavros stating the he has abducted his pregnant wife who is about to give birth to their son.  A daring and dangerous escape brings Jack back to Antwerp seeking Yaz’s arsenal and savvy.  What ensues beyond this is an unlikely partnership that evolves, through adrenalin fueled danger, into a trusted friendship as Quinn attempts to save his wife and child while trying to burn down Stavros once and for all.

What would make or break this film was clearly going to be how Van Damme and Rodman meshed.  The eccentric NBA star was hot news at the time easily coined a bad boy for his antics on and off the court.  Here, he is surprisingly funny and likeable without being crass.  I found him nicely charming generating a lot of the film’s clean sense of fun and humor.  Van Damme holds down the more serious end of things nicely.  It’s not anything exceptional, but he inhabits Jack Quinn very well.  You can feel his determination and love for his wife and child throughout the film.  JCVD has a lot of heart to offer in these roles which I think gets overlooked by the sensational aspects of his movies.  As Quinn, it really shows through.  And while Rodman handles the bulk of the humor, Jean-Claude dishes out a few quips here and there as banter with Yaz.  As a team, they may not be 100% pitch perfect, but their performances balance out the film well.  Van Damme and Rodman seem to be enjoying themselves, and their chemistry works out to surprising success to make them a fine, if unlikely team.  Of course, there are numerous basketball jokes throughout the movie, but they are handled with a bit of charm.  And frankly, would you expect otherwise?  A film of this sort with many plot, humor, and character throwbacks to the cliché 1980s action film couldn’t possibly deny those ripe opportunities.  Don’t take that as a knock at all.  Double Team takes that style and formula, and gives it a nice splash of fresh paint with a late 90s style.  A sharper, sleeker design that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Mickey Rourke could play a heavy without even trying, but as we’ve seen in recent years, he has a wide range of acting talents.  Here, he doesn’t need to stretch far, but Stavros is a solid villain with a fine array of henchmen and assassins.  He has a clear plan of revenge that he handles calmly and confidently.  He keeps his cool throughout because he’s got the game nicely strategized for Quinn to follow his lead.  Mickey has a smooth coolness wrapped up with a tough bad ass edge which suits Stavros perfectly, and gives Quinn a hell of an enemy to combat.

Rounding out the meat of the cast is Paul Freeman as Goldsmyth.  The role has some nice British charm mixed with a touch of humor and shadiness.  He’s both ally and adversary to Quinn, and he shifts from one to the other with a bit of grace without losing his likeability.  Goldsmyth would rather not have to be an adversary, but circumstances deem it necessary for him to be as such.  In the end, Goldsmyth is given an upbeat final note to go out on.  Freeman handles the role smoothly.

The action, of course, is very well handled.  Competently shot with a dash of style, and nicely edited to maintain energy and pace without sacrificing the clarity of the visual storytelling.  I have not seen even most of Van Damme’s movies, but this has a nice mix of action sequences that should satisfy his fans.  He does plenty of hard hitting martial arts fights mixed with shootouts and explosions to keep the film exciting and varied.  The climactic action sequence is flat out AMAZING with a tiger set loose on Quinn in the Roman Coliseum with a field of hidden landmines, and some daring motorcycle antics by Yaz.  It’s an explosive, rather original double edged ending that also gives Rourke the chance to show off his impressive physique.  Mickey Rourke trained rigorously to be up to Van Damme’s level for their fight scenes, and certainly holds up his end providing a formidable adversary.  This being a film from the late 1990s, there’s some splashes of John Woo style action, but in general, it’s solid work.  The European setting is a very nice touch giving a different style to the film in many ways.  It helps the movie to stand out a bit more with a fresh flavor.

Other elements of fun definitely come from Rodman’s character.  He handles some brief, but enjoyable and entertaining action sequences.  Being an athlete already, I’m sure it was an easy fit for him, and the role is written in such a way to maintain a sense of sly humor.  It all fits for his character’s style, and supplements the more hard hitting action that Van Damme offers.  Another fun bit are Yaz’s “cyber monks.”  A group of monks in Rome that Yaz has befriended with the gift of modern technology.  They are an endearing bunch which provide some additional smiles and chuckles for a brief period late in the film.  The humor present in the film really does help balance out the heavier dramatic and action aspects, and gives Double Team its endearing charm.  There’s some cheesy dialogue, but it’s all handled in good fun.

Again, the cinematography offers up some style that is very telling of the time it was made.  Dutched angles here and there are used more to add a stylistic composition to a few shots than create an artistic off-kilter perception.  Unlike in Thor when it was used to no purposeful effect, here, it just feels like a sign of the times.  Dutch angles in action films were used as a stamp of “cool.”  You would shoot a subject with an awkward angle, and they take on a more skewed “cool” look in combination with the sleek, shadowy lighting.  It’s nothing I take issue with, but it is indeed a trademark of late 90s action films that a modern audience wouldn’t be so used to.

The plot is pretty standard fare that was practically a decade old by this time.  That was brightly highlighted in the Nostalgia Critic’s review of the movie, which is what sparked me to check it out, again.  However, as I’ve said, I think the storyline is handled well with doses of humor, Van Damme’s unique action stylings, and the European setting.  While the film does have its humor, it’s never used at the expense of the drama.  It’s very nicely balanced for both to co-exist without clashing. The movie is well cast with actors who bring distinctive personality to their characters, and make the ride one worth taking.  There are certainly gaps in logic with the screenplay, and some things on-screen are a bit ridiculous.  Still, like I said, this was meant to be a fun thrill ride.  It never takes these elements are serious, and are usually brief gaps.

I watch Double Team again now, and I just wish they made a sequel.  It’s so much fun with enjoyable, colorful characters, and nicely energetic and slightly over the top action sequences.  Plans were considered for a sequel, and while its box office take did exceed its production budget, it wasn’t a huge success.  Every film, generally, should be judged on its own merits, and based on the genre and style of film this is, I think it’s definitely worthwhile.  Plenty of big action to be had along with some solid laughs.