'Underworld' needed Juliet's potion


Scott Speedman and Kate Beckinsale star in the dark thriller "Underworld."

SCREEN GEMS
Published: Friday, January 16, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 16, 2004 at 12:02 a.m.
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Underworld 1/2E (one half of one E) Tromeo and Juliet EEE ( three Es) Romeo + Juliet EEE (three Es) REWIND THESE

You may not believe this, but I think you have what it takes to make it as a writer or director in Hollywood. You, yes you, can write for the silver screen. You don't need a pen and paper, or a computer, or even an idea; just take something you already like, change the names and say you created it. No one pays attention any more.

Case in point: "Underworld."

I think the meeting for this movie went something like this:

"I've got this idea. It's like 'Romeo and Juliet,' only Romeo is a wolfman, and Juliet is a vampire assassin in black leather. Instead of suspense, we'll have 18 billion gunshots that don't hit anybody. Instead of a love story, we'll have flat dialogue from characters too cool for love. And instead of drama, we'll have crummy looking CGI werewolves."

"Brilliant. Here's $1 million."

After watching "Underworld," I'm convinced the big-budget Hollywood thought process is that easy.

Kate Beckinsale and Scott Speedman drew the short straws and ended up as leads in this piece of cinematic detritus. Beckinsale is Selene, who jumps off buildings and skulks around looking for werewolves to murder. Speedman is Eric, part-time doctor and full-time meatball who has a run-in with some mangy beasts and ends up a werewolf.

Do these star-crossed kids fall in love? Actually, it's hard to tell.

Every character in "Underworld" is so gothic and gloomy, so pale and sullen, it's hard to read any emotion into them at all. They didn't so much rip off Shakespeare's immortal play, as borrow the story.

To supplant the film's meager plot, it borrows the rest of its content from "The Matrix." Yet, even though it takes equal parts from two quality sources, "Underworld" falls completely flat in every regard and manages to be not only bad but boring.

It's a post-"Matrix" movie that thinks special effects and machine guns are all it takes to make a good action film. But "The Matrix" had an intelligent story and characters that, even if detached, were distinguishable from one another. All "Underworld" has is a formula story, dim lighting and a black vinyl sense of style.

Truly awful, in every possible regard. Not even the tasty Beckinsale can save this were-dog of a movie.

To find a much more enjoyable bastardization of Shakespeare, follow me into the cinematic gutter for "Tromeo and Juliet," quite possibly the most shocking and vile adaptation since Andy Warhol tried to remake "Frankenstein."

I mean that as a compliment, of course. The fine folks at Troma, previously responsible for the brilliant gore-and-skin flicks "The Toxic Avenger" and "Class of Nuke 'em High," turn their attention to the Bard. To spice up his somewhat dry text, writer James Gunn and legendary director Lloyd Kaufman added incest, gang violence, dismemberment and sexual perversion.

Just in case there was one person who wasn't offended, they also add on-screen nipple piercing. Shakespeare probably would have wanted it that way.

There has never been another movie quite like "Tromeo," which is a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how strong your stomach is. Be on the look-out, as the movie does contain bits of actual cleverness (the use of "Jackson Pollock" as a verb) mixed in with gallons of blood, a small dictionary of swear words and lots of nubile New Jersey actresses.

And, of course, they had to change the ending; suicides just aren't as quaint as they used to be.

On a more conventional note, "Tromeo" wasn't the only update in the theaters in 1996. Baz Luhrmann, who went on to earn my undying scorn with "Moulin Rogue," directed "Romeo + Juliet" that year, a movie that uses the original text in a modern setting.

In this version, Leonardo DiCaprio is a Montague, a criminal family in a heated war with the Capulets. When he falls for Claire Danes, cherished daughter of the Capulet clan, his world becomes more bleak and dangerous than he could have ever imagined. That's love for you.

Luhrmann uses a broad spectrum of color in all his films, and it works well for "Romeo." The original flavor is kept with the dialogue, and the updated settings and visuals (such as the swords replaced with guns named after swords) gives the story a much-needed energy. The casting is also quite good, featuring Brian Dennehy, Paul Sorvino, John Leguizamo and Harold Perrineau.

Three different versions of the same story. "Underworld" is a dog, but the other two are excellent in their own rights.

Until next time.

Juliet: "Parting is such sweet sorrow."

Tromeo: "Yeah, it totally sucks."

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