Movies like this, I usually look upon with equal parts excitement and dread. Granted, this wasn't exactly a full-bore werewolf movie, but more of a combination action/gothic flick with lycanthropes thrown in for antagonism's sake, but still - movies that feature werewolves are few and far between these days, and it's been over 20 years since the last good werewolf movie (An American Werewolf in London), so any representation they get in film is a plus.
Then again, I tend to approach these movies with a bit of caution. I don't know if you've noticed this, but most gothic movies nowadays are so caught up in the atmosphere - we have to have the brooding grunge rock, it must be raining in every scene, everyone has to be driving a black car, etc. - that the storyline is put on the back burner on low heat. The last werewolf movie I saw - An American Werewolf in Paris - followed that mantra to the T; I'm sure they spent more time getting Bush (the music group, that is) to sing the main soundtrack song then they did on the screenplay. Just a hunch.
So does Underworld break the 22-year drought for werewolf movies? I'm not ready to give a verdict on that quite yet; it'll probably be at least a couple of weeks before the significance of the movie sinks in, but at the very least they were headed in the right direction.
The plot is basically a variation on the eternal conflict between lovers among feuding clans. Selene (played by Kate Beckinsale) is a vampire, whose kind have been at war for centuries with the werewolf population of the world (known as "Lycans"). In a city that looks vaguely European but is never given a specific location, a human by the name of Michael Corwin (played by Scott Speedman, although he looks just like Scott Stapp from Creed) gets caught in the middle of this war. It seems that the Lycans are stalking him, and it's not until much later in the film that we figure out why.
Anyways, through a turn of events, Michael is bitten by a werewolf. We all know what that means. Normally, Selene would kill him just as soon as she met him, but three complications arise: A) She doesn't actually learn of the bite until later on; B) Werewolves never target individuals which raises some suspicion in her mind, and C) she's starting to develop some feelings for him.
The rest of the movie is essentially an extension of the battle between vamps and wolves; there's a lot of betrayal and scheming going on on both sides, and while the main character is eye-candy and the members on the other side look like extras from Waterworld, it becomes apparent that maybe, just maybe, the rhetorical deck isn't as stacked against the werewolves as I originally thought.
The special effects are decent. The fight scenes are OK, although at some junctures it's hard to see who's shooting at whom and from where. The transformations are good - although I'm waiting for this phase of nondiegetic cuts (which often cut to a place where nothing in particular is happening) to pass so they'll show one of these sequences in its entirety, like it ought to be seen. There's a lot of blood in the movie, which stands to logic given the subject matter of the film, but that didn't stop me from squirming every now and then - particularly at the end of the climactic battle.
The movie's real downside is the acting. Beckinsale is the most believable of characters, but her acting skills were only a notch above average. The vampiric patriarch was also decent but not particularly impressive. Everyone else was a ham. Kraven (Shane Brolly) went way overboard on the smarm, Lucian (Michael Sheen) played the cheesy villain ("Must I do everything myself?"), and for someone having second billing, I think Speedman had a whole 12 lines in the movie, and he delivered them all like Keanu Reeves. The worst thing, though, was when Speedman became the hybrid and played the entire rest of the movie with this empty scowl on his face. Given his facial expression and his appearance, I couldn't get the image of Lou Ferrigno out of my head.
Highlight the blended portion if you want to reveal the spoiler.
All in all, I give Underworld a 6 out of 10. It's not a "good" werewolf movie per se, but at the very least they didn't screw anything up. There were obvious clues of a sequel (then again, every movie does that now), and it'll be interesting to see where they go from here. Ultimately, I think the movie would've been better if told from Michael's point of view as opposed to Selene's, but you and I both know that that wasn't going to happen. Not when you have Kate Beckinsale in the cast.