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Review: 'Underworld:' very violent, very bad

June 12, 1997
Web posted at: 1:43 p.m. EDT (1743 GMT)

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

Underworld photo

(CNN) -- I think it's high time somebody called a moratorium on mediocre screenwriters trying to ape Quentin Tarantino's chatty-catty dialogue. You know the kind of stuff I'm talking about -- violently sociopathic mobsters blabbing on for hours about the sort of stuff that usually gets debated in Midwestern hair salons.

"Underworld," a new mob film starring the gifted but very, very unlucky Denis Leary, is written by a guy named Larry Bishop, and you can bet Larry hooted himself hoarse while watching "Pulp Fiction." "You know what they call a Quarter Pounder in Europe?" indeed.

It's not fair to say that Bishop is stealing solely from Tarantino, though. He's also developed a quasi-Naugahyde David Mamet jabber that'll make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. Nothing that happens in "Underworld" makes much sense, but I've covered so much foolishness in the past few months, I've almost come to expect that.

No, today we're going to discuss the growing sport of deconstructing the gangster genre by simply making gangsters say and do things that you wouldn't normally expect gangsters to say and do. Tarantino (a very talented, if over-praised, writer) has managed to convince half the people in the film industry that incongruent behavior is good, incongruent behavior is funny, and incongruent behavior is the height of creativity. I'd like to add that incongruent behavior is paying nine bucks (in New York, anyway) to see a movie that's a complete crock of former Quarter Pounders.

"Underworld" is directed by Roger Christian, who sports an overdone visual style that's become the hack calling card of the '90s. Glistening limousine bumpers cruising through the damp night, mobsters in sharkskin suits pumping off shots with pistols in both hands, guys grimacing as they pop out (or slap in) a new cartridge full of bullets, sleepy-eyed strippers undulating, heads exploding, heads exploding, and heads exploding. This is just about as violent a film as I've ever seen, and I'm not exaggerating. I'd estimate that at least 10 people take it point blank in the noggin at one time or another, and another 30 get variously gouged, chopped, stabbed, slashed and machine-gunned while flying through huge panes of glass. I'm not offended by the violence, although I'm guessing many people would be. What offends me is the absolute lack of inventiveness it takes to pull it all off.

Joe Mantegna literally comes along for the ride with Leary. They spend a full third of the movie tooling around in the back of Leary's limousine, discussing in ominous, needlessly roundabout ways, exactly who shot who, where, when, and why. My God, how the people in this movie love to yack. There are "hilarious" mobster conversations about Danny Kaye's performance as Hans Christian Andersen, Katherine Hepburn's charity work, and the songs of Rodgers & Hammerstein, to name just a few. We also get to see a stone-cold killer go ballistic because he doesn't like to eat green Lifesavers. You see, this is really good writing because you normally wouldn't get to see a hit man complaining about hard candy. Oh, yeah, I already explained that.

There are several women in the film, but God forbid that they be presented as anything but strippers or simple transport vehicles for female reproductive organs. Annabella Sciorra plays Mantegna's ex-wife, and even she spends half her time in a prone position with her legs wrapped around her former hubbie's gluteus maximus. There's also Tracy Lords, who isn't around for long because she gets shot in the back of her head after coming on to her boyfriend. He's the guy with the Lifesavers, her brains end up smeared all over the windshield, and I have no earthly idea why he did it. Later, Mr. Lifesavers blows up the car with her body still in it, and you can tell the filmmakers are real cool because he doesn't look back when the explosion hits; he just keeps walking. This isn't just garbage, folks. This is re-heated garbage.

At one point, Leary and Mantegna are debating the merits of Leary's adopted gangster name, Johnny Crown. Mantegna's character actually says, "It sounds fake. There's a fakey-ness to it." You can say that again, Joe. They ought to print it on the poster.

"Underworld" is very violent, very profane, and very bad. There's less killing at your local slaughterhouse, and the dialogue is probably sharper. Rated R. 95 minutes.

  
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