U's The Boss?
Ultraviolet vs. Underworld: Evolution
On the left, in the red corner: weighing in at 120 lbs - Milla Jovovich...
And on the right, in the, ah, black corner, weighing in at 115 lbs - Kate Beckinsale...
Of all 108 films in 2005 that grossed $20m at the American box-office, precisely one started with the letter "U": Unleashed. But barely two months into this year, we've already had a pair of action heroines - and vampiric ones, to boot - crack the mark with that letter. And from the same company, Screen Gems, too. Coincidence? Yes, very probably: but why let that get in the way of a double-feature? Not least, because in Kate Beckinsale and Milla Jovovich, we have two of the leading ass-kicking actresses in Hollywood. So pending the (hopefully inevitable) Underworld vs. Ultraviolet cross-over, let's pit them against each other and see what happens...
Dir: Len Wiseman
Stars: Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Tony Curran, Derek Jacobi
While undeniably flawed, the original Underworld had a big ace up its sleeve, in the basic concept of "vampires vs. werewolves", which hadn't received such a full-on depiction in cinema before. This time, the idea is familiar, and the story doesn't have anything quite as cool to replace it. Sure, there's the old fall-back of Kate Beckinsale in a PVC suit, but the sense of something genuinely new is rarely apparent. Sure, it's a sequel, which in Hollywood translates to "more of the same", but the lack of invention on view is still disappointing.
We start with a flashback to medieval times, explaining the basic premise, involving two immortal brothers, one bitten by a bat, the other a wolf. [A third brother was nibbled by a narwhal, but his role ended up on the cutting-room floor. Okay, I made that up.] Anyway, the lycanthrope is captured and locked up in a secret location by Victor (Bill Nighy - mercifully, only cameoing, since it's impossible to take him seriously after his wonderful performance in Shaun of the Dead. We kept muttering, "I ran it under a cold tap..." every time he appeared). Back in the present, the vampire, Marcus (Curran), has been freed, and is now out to release his brother.
Meanwhile, Selene (Beckinsale) and her vamp-lycan hybrid lover Michael (Speedman) are bouncing around, trying to settle down and raise a family, of what I guess would be mostly vampires, but ones that get a little frisky around the full moon. Quite why they need to get involved in the storyline of the previous paragraph is unclear, but they do. And it's probably relevant that contemplating the breeding habit of night creatures, and quoting lines from a British zom-rom-com were perhaps the best entertainment the film provided.
It isn't entirely without merit though. Marcus is a memorable creation whose wings function as impressive weapons, and the effects are highly messy. In particular, the final two fights - and at least, this time, Selene does more than administer the coup de grace - both end in immaculately splattery ways. Though as an aside, I'm impressed with the sturdiness of a helicopter that can come crashing through a roof, yet still have engine and rotors running. But the action, on the whole, is fine, with an excellent chase which has Marcus harrying a truck, while Selene and Michael try to fend him off.
No, it's the moments between the battles that are the problems, not least a dumb and gratuitous sex scene between Selene and Michael that appears to have wandered in from an airline version of a SkineMax movie. And the exposition also has to count as among the most leaden of recent times, achieving the rare double-bill of sending Chris and I independently off to sleep. Hey, we'd been out boating all day. So sue us. :-) However, for any action-fantasy to have both of us snoozing is definitely problematic.
So the results are disappointing, largely lacking the sense of style and invention that made the original a pleasant surprise (as well as something of a sleeper hit). However, it did well enough at the box-office to leave a third entry possible, and particularly when in motion, there was still sufficient life in the franchise to suggest that might not be an entirely bad thing. However, any future storyline must be limited to whatever complexity can be scrawled on a beer-mat. Anything more, and the scriptwriter should be sentenced to mop out sweat from Selene's costume. With his tongue. :-)
Dir: Kurt Wimmer
Stars: Milla Jovovich, Cameron Bright, Nick Chinlund, William Fichtner
By my reckoning, that's now five straight big-budget action-heroine pics in a row not to be screened for critics: in addition to these two, add Domino, Aeon Flux and Bloodrayne. Yet this is, like the others, no real disaster: indeed, this is a luridly visual, CGI-overkill of a movie, which unfolds exactly like the comic-books used to striking effect in the opening credits, and wears its HK action (among other) influences on its sleeve.
Of course, it probably helps that we are big fans of Equilibrium, Wimmer's previous SF-action flick, which achieved a cult following for its sleek style and innovative "gun kata", a scientific martial-art designed to maximize both the efficiency and survival of its practitioners. Ultraviolet could be set in a parallel universe to that, where a disease has turned some of humankind into vampires, or "hemophages" as they're called here. The rulers, led by Daxus (Chinlund), have developed a genocidal bioweapon, which Violet (Jovovich) has been tasked by her colleagues in the vampire resistance to steal or destroy. Only, to her shock, it turns out to be a child (Bright), which brings out her maternal instincts, even as both Daxus and her former allies now seek to destroy her.
As with Resident Evil, the main asset is Jovovich, who projects just the right mix of chic bad-ass - her belly-button gets so much screen time, it deserved its own credit - with wardrobe and hair changing colour in synch with her mood [and, I believe, it's far more likely nanotech will be used for this kind of thing than, say, curing cancer] When her co-vampires prepare to take her on, pointing out they're just as fast and strong as she is, her response is, "Yeah, but are you as pissed-off as I am?". It's hard to imagine any other actress who'd come out with such a cheesy line and get away with it.
Indeed, much of the film is similarly-targeted: her ability to drive her bike up and down the walls of skyscrapers is dismissed with a one-line reference to a "gravity leveller". What? Exactly. This airy dismissal is the film's way of telling you it isn't going to bother explaining everything, and you'd better deal with it. In that way, it is perhaps more like Aeon Flux than Aeon Flux actually was, and the body-count is similarly hefty to the original MTV shorts. However, the PG-13 certificate leaves it all but bloodless, giving the battles about as much sense of danger as a video game. And, oddly, every shot of Jovovich appears to be in soft-focus, for no apparent reason.
Otherwise, however, the action is excellent, CGI enhancing the impact of the fights. There is a certain sameness, it must be admitted - Violet faces multiple opponents and kicks their arses from here to next week - but Wimmer takes this basic theme and runs enough variations on it that it doesn't become boring. Visually, it is hard to work out where the sets stop and the plentiful effects work begins (to some extent, that's true of the supporting cast as well, who don't have really have much to do, and may be avatars). Either way, it looks fairly good, given the budget: as noted, it isn't going for photorealism, though the motorcycle chase did look more like an Xbox game. But even little things like disposable mobile phones, indicate genuine thought has gone into the edges. Perhaps more so than the plot, truth be told.
However, if you're looking for a cool, entertaining flick, this is the best action heroine to come down the pipe since...well, probably the last Milla Jovovich film. While studio interference may have hampered Wimmer's creative vision (half an hour is rumoured to have been cut out - here's hoping for an uncut DVD), it's certainly not deserving of the 8% fresh score at rottentomatoes.com: as previously mentioned here, hell hath no fury like critics shorn of their free screenings. And in contrast, after 2200 ratings in the IMDB, 25.6% of voters gave it 8+ out of 10, so don't just take my word for it. I'll close with some comments from other, brave, reviewers who "got" it like I did - albeit partly to prove my enjoyment of this was not just a psychotic episode...
Peter Sobczynski: "The pretenders will bitch about ridiculous and over-the-top while decrying it as mind-numbing junk while the real film fans–those who realize that the line between trash and art is not as large or as distinct as some would have you think–will relish it for those very same qualities." Kushmeer Farakhan: "Probably the first great Popcorn movie of the year. It’s not brainless and it’s not highbrow, it merely is what it is. A really fun action movie." Brian Gallagher: "If you want some insanely innovative action, with a futuristic twist, Ultraviolet is right up your bullet-dodging alley."
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