action-horror flicks. Resident Evil is certainly the go-to standard, inspired by the unique action set pieces (and presentation) of the original Matrix movie, but similarly themed competitor Underworld was competing with it. For a time.
Where Resident Evil got and continues to get it right is in embracing the inherent silliness of sequel escalation, and not feeling beholden to action trends of yesteryear. Underworld, on the other hand, sticks to its Matrix-inspired guns, ultraviolet ammunition and all, for better or for worse. Now we’ve reached the fifth Underworld in the series, however, it definitely feels “worse” over “better”.
Even as a guilty-pleasure Underworld fan, I found the prologue at the start of Underworld: Blood Wars as essential as it was confusing. So it can jump into the latest melodrama as quick as possible, the prologue moves quickly to get you up to speed with critical backstory and Selina’s (Kate Beckinsale) character motivation: in terms of personal stakes, that she feels she missed out on being a mother by blindly exiling her daughter Eve (albeit, for her daughter’s safety).
Director Anna Foerster, in her feature debut, wastes little time jumping into the action after the prologue, and the plot certainly moves at a blistering pace. Just as the Shakespearean-lite melodrama threatens to outstay its welcome, there’s a burst of intense and well-shot action, or a major set piece to remind you why you pay to see Underworld movies.
But sometimes this pace comes at the cost of story pay-offs.Veteran actors like Menzies, Charles Dance (returning as vampire leader Thomas), and new-to-the-series Lara Pulver (Irene Adler in the Sherlock TV series) handle the chewy stage -like dialogue with aplomb, even if there seems to be little -meaning in what’s actually being said. Dance is criminally underused, and there’s an event at the end of the first act involving his character that seems to be ignored for the rest of the movie, despite its implications.
The setup is interesting enough, especially in how it returns to its roots, with Selene offered a reprieve by the vampire council in the hopes that the master Death Dealer will train the short-in-the-tooth raw recruits to fight against an impending attack from an organised lycan horde. Rome alumni (or most recently, Game of Thrones’ Edmure Tully) Tobias Menzies takes on the role of Marius, a new lycan leader who’s tamed the bestial lycan horde into an organised army.
Though this is ultimately a movie about a bump in the night grudge match of vampires vs werewolves, there are some plot conveniences that detract from one of the core tenets of the series: namely, taking the material seriously.
The reason Underworld’s silliness has worked so well (in stretches) in the older movies is that the respective writers, directors and cast take the material seriously, offering a hilarious Batman Begins-like acceptance of larger-than-life warriors.
Blood Wars, though, commits the cardinal sin of breaking the rules of its own universe in an effort to offer sequel escalation. That mostly grounded universe forged across the previous four movies is thrown out the window towards the end of the second act with the introduction of a poorly explored supernatural component.
By the time the dust settles on the final confrontation, many of the events of the movie ultimately add up to nothing in terms of their contribution to moving the series forward. There’s one spoiler-ific component that creates room for a sequel, but in terms of the core thrust of the movie – a hunt for Eve – the plot falls flat, and delivers disappointing closure on one of the core motivations it pledges to explore from the outset.
In the shaky-cam days of Jason Bourne, Foerster thankfully opts for well-shot and clear-focused action that highlights some great sequences, even if there’s not a whole lot of originality at play. Beckinsale carries the movie with the same tact she has in the past: a character chiselled out of granite with very little emotion who is at the top of her game when it comes to kicking arse (except when the script says otherwise).
One of the oddest parts of Blood Wars, though, is how it tries to tie in Scott Speedman’s character, Michael Corvin, through flashbacks, even though he opted out of the series after the first two movies. By the final confrontation, you’ll know why writer Cory Goodman (The Last Witch Hunter) has done this, but the related reveal adds so little to anything (minus the most hardcore of Underworld fans) it could have easily been left out.
Newcomers to the Underworld series are likely to get lost in the fast-moving vampire politics and generous smattering of flashbacks, but faithful fans will likely find a serviceable addition to the franchise. It’s an odd thing to say, but the producers really should consider rebooting rather than continuing on Underworld’s current blunt-stake trajectory.