Blood feud between vampires and werewolves continues apace in aggressively amped-up sequel to surprisingly popular 2004 monster rally. Like its predecessor, pic relies heavily on grisly spectacle, wall-to-wall action and goth-flavored sex appeal. Pic should please a fan base that has grown during original's international theatrical and homevid roll-out.

The blood feud between vampires and werewolves continues apace in “Underworld: Evolution,” helmer Len Wiseman’s aggressively amped-up sequel to his surprisingly popular 2004 monster rally. Like its predecessor, follow-up relies heavily on grisly spectacle, wall-to-wall action and goth-flavored sex appeal to sustain interest and pump adrenaline during haphazard unfolding of borderline-incoherent plot. Pic should please a fan base that has grown during original’s international theatrical and homevid roll-out.

Once again, Kate Beckinsale stars as Selene, a duster-cloaked, leather-clad vampire warrior who favors blazing guns over bared fangs. Original “Underworld” established the character’s kick-ass credentials during slo-mo acrobatics and sustained firefights as Selene led other members of her undead clan in urban warfare against a band of ravenous “Lycans.”

Sequel offers more of the same as Selene dodges Lycans and fellow bloodsuckers in the countryside of some vaguely defined Eastern European locale. (Pic was filmed in Vancouver).

Last time out, Selene distanced herself from her blood brethren by killing Viktor (Bill Nighy), a treacherous vampire elder who murdered her family centuries earlier. More important, she also shifted loyalties: To save the life of her dying sweetie, a reluctant Lycan named Michael (Scott Speedman), she guaranteed his immortality by putting the bite on him.

The sequel begins with Selene and Michael (Speedman again) as fugitives from human and superhuman hunters. While she seeks a safe house where they can rest and rearm, he struggles to comprehend and control his new powers as a half-vampire, half-werewolf mutant. (His expandable claws come in very handy when — no kidding — he has to open paint cans.)

Their most persistent pursuers: Marcus (Tony Curran), an ancient vampire elder with a humongous wingspan, and Alexander Corvinus (Derek Jacobi), a fabulously rich immortal. Marcus, the great-granddaddy of all bloodsuckers, is eager to tap into Selene’s repressed memories to locate his long-imprisoned brother, William (Brian Steele), the very first werewolf.

But Alexander is every bit as eager to keep the werewolf behind closed doors, and with good reason: The enigmatic and elegant gentleman is the not-so-proud father of Marcus and William.

“Underworld: Evolution” sounds more logical than it really is. For audiences who don’t have ready access to the plot synopsis in the pic’s press kit, motivations and transitions may often seem, at best, only fuzzily defined. The faux-mythic scenario by Danny McBride (based on characters he created with Wiseman and Kevin Grevioux) is self-consciously complex, sometimes to the point of opacity, and barely passes muster as a serviceable excuse to link genuinely impressive action sequences.

Still, overall package is potent. A few rock-the-house scenes of slam-bang derring-do — including Marcus’ aerial assault on a truck driven by Selene and Michael — are nothing short of sensationally exciting. And the first-rate f/x artists manage to bring a few new scary twists to the familiar man-into-wolf transformations. All of the sound and fury signifies relatively little, but genre fans likely will thrill to the breakneck momentum and the literal overkill.

Beckinsale (who married helmer Wiseman between “Underworld” pics) again proves to be a formidable action anti-heroine, even as she increases the va-va-voom quotient with a steamy scene to demonstrate that, as great as she looks in the leather catsuit, she looks even better out of it.

Jacobi adds a touch of class to the proceedings — which is no doubt what he was hired to do in the first place — while other supporting players (including well-cast Speedman and scenery-chewing Curran) pitch their performances at the proper level of intensity.

Underworld: Evolution

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Screen Gems and Lakeshore Entertainment presentation of a Lakeshore Entertainment production. Produced by Tom Rosenberg, Gary Lucchesi, Gary David Coatsworth and Richard Wright. Executive producers: Skip Williamson, Henry Winterstern, Terry A. McKay, Len Wiseman, Danny McBride and James McQuade. Co-producer: Kevin Grevioux.  Directed by Len Wiseman. Screenplay, Danny McBride, from story by Wiseman, McBride, based on characters created by Kevin Grevioux, Wiseman, McBride.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Simon Duggan; editor, Nicolas De Toth; music, Marco Beltrami; production designer, creature designer and supervisor, Patrick Tatopoulos; art director, Chris August; set designers, Allan Galajda, John G. Burke; costume designer, Wendy Partridge; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), David Husby; assistant director, Sam Harris; second unit director, action designer, Brad Martin; casting, Tricia Wood, Deborah Aquila. Reviewed at Edwards Marq*e Cinema, Houston, Jan. 19, 2006. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 106 MIN.

With

Selene - Kate Beckinsale Michael - Scott Speedman Marcus - Tony Curran Alexander Corvinus - Derek Jacobi Viktor - Bill Nighy Arnaud Tanis - Steven Mackintosh Kraven - Shane Brolly William - Brian Steele Amelia - Zita Gorog Soren - Scott McElroy Samuel - John Mann Lucian - Michael Sheen

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