Written by: Cory Goodman (screenplay), Kyle Ward (story by), Kevin Grevioux, Len Wiseman, & Danny McBride (characters)
Directed by: Anna Foerster
Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Theo James, and Tobias Menzies
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Protect the bloodline.
After nearly fifteen (!) years now, it's safe to say that the appeal of the Underworld franchise largely rests in the supreme joy of watching Kate Beckinsale kill the absolute shit out of vampires and werewolves. Sure, it’s got a dense—which is not to be confused with “rich”—mythology, full of twists, turns, and revelations; however, that’s rarely registered across multiple films, at least with yours truly. While I begrudgingly admire its commitment to crafting an elaborate story out of its straightforward premise, Underworld is at its best when it actually embraces that concept at a primal level. The previous entry, 2012’s Underworld: Awakening, seemed to finally grasp this, as it basically reduced its proceedings to wall-to-wall shootouts and other assorted ass-kickings delivered via Beckinsale’s righteously pissed-off Selene (all in less than 90 minutes to boot). At the very least, it seemed to get it in a way previous entries did not.
What the latest sequel, Blood Wars, supposes it that maybe you don’t really want to see Selene do her thing so much after all. Instead, it boldly assumes that what you actually want from Underworld at this point is a lot of Theo James. I cannot fathom how this would be true of any franchise, much less one that’s been mostly carried by Kate Beckinsale (Rise of the Lycans at least reasonably substituted Rhona Mitra). It’d be like making a Die Hard movie where Jai Courtney granted a significant amount of screentime, and no one in their right mind would do that, at least to my knowledge.
You may or may not recall that James was introduced in the previous film as [googles character name] David, an accomplice helping Selene to rebel against his own father’s coven of vampires. Blood Wars resumes some undetermined time later, with the two still fleeing from both vampire and werewolf clans looking to extract Selene’s magic blood for their own nefarious purposes. New leader Marius (Tobias Menzies) leads the charge for the lycans, who further believe Selene’s long-lost daughter holds the key to finally ending the battle between the two species. Meanwhile, the constant in-fighting within the vampire clan has led to different factions plotting their own schemes involving Selene: some of the elders see her as a savior capable of training a new generation of death-dealers, while others (namely Lara Pulver’s Semeria) just want to use her to gain power.
In a nutshell, that’s the extremely simplistic plot of Blood Wars. Of course, in true Underworld fashion, it’s needlessly complicated by shifting loyalties, forbidden romances, and long-hidden secrets about the vampires’ history. Even committing half the characters’ names to memory is a chore, and the film moves at such a breakneck pace that plot points just breeze right on by, many of them rendered pretty much inconsequential. All you really need to know is that the script does find a way to consistently stage some pretty serviceable action sequences with the faint pretense that it’s underpinned by an actual story. I mean, it’s the sort of movie where a character insists the Lycans can never reach the vampires’ northernmost stronghold, yet not two scenes later, there are the fucking Lycans very much storming said stronghold. Trust me when I say the script—convoluted and mush-mouthed though it may be—is not concerned with details or suspense.
Unfortunately, it’s biggest, most overarching, and perhaps coherent development is rather disappointing. It turns out that this chapter is less about Selene—who pretty much plays a passive role throughout, given that she just wants to be left the hell alone—and more about [scrolls up to remember this character’s name again] David. Without spoiling the details, suffice it to say he’s a very important person, one who’s destined to restore the vampires back to their former glory—if only he can get over his reluctant hero bullshit first, of course. Not only is this old, dusty hat, but it’s not at all riveting and basically amounts to James staring longingly at a sword before deciding, yes, sure, he should rip up some werewolf ass. I don’t mean to pick on James—hopefully he’ll eventually find his niche and pan out, but he’s the latest in a long line of bland actors that Hollywood seems determined to make happen. It is not happening here.
All of this has the effect of basically sidelining Selene in her fourth outing, a disappointing turn of events considering it’s very much her saga at this point. It’s not that I’m only looking for sheer fan-service and for Selene to constantly steal the show—it’s just that the film’s idea of “drama” involves having her beaten half to death until someone rescues her. There’s very little for Beckinsale to do here outside of strike awesome poses and constantly insist she has no idea where her daughter is whenever someone demands answers. It’s too bad—there’s an obvious affection and sincerity surrounding this role that’s occasionally evident whenever Beckinsale has the brief opportunity to reckon with everything Selene has lost over the years. As much as I joke about this series thriving on the appeal of Beckinsale’s action chops, there’s an appreciable sentimentality in the first two, as dopey and overdone as it was.
You miss that here, even if Blood Wars does have the decency to follow in the previous entry’s footsteps by excusing itself from your life as quickly as possible. Another sub-90 minute outing, it zips right on by hastily enough, tossing in plenty of shiny CGI distractions to give the illusion of entertainment. Blood Wars also shares Awakening’s sense of feeling like second-rate Underworld: with Beckinsale representing the lone tether to the original movies, it’s beginning to feel more and more like a shade of itself.
Selene’s distinctive wardrobe and the franchise’s signature midnight blue sheen are familiar, but everything else feels like a lesser replacement: Charles Dance returns, still essentially riffing on Bill Nighy’s presence in the original, while James is a serviceable sidekick that somehow manages to be more wooden than the departed Scott Speedman. A lycan and a werewolf have a secret romance, which is vaguely reminiscent of Michael and Selene, though it goes absolutely nowhere, much like every other development. Pulver’s one of the few vital new additions as the sultry, scheming Semeria, yet even this turn just feels like some leftover Eva Greene routine (note: when in doubt, just cast Eva Greene).
Some other flourishes excite, particularly the revelation of a heretofore unseen coven who are, like, fucking vampire ghosts, armed with mystical teleportation abilities, a gift for seeing into the beyond, and magical ombre hairstyles. The snowbound, almost medieval setting has an obvious Game of Thrones vibe, but it’s a nice contrast to the grimy, dim urban settings of previous films. At the very least, it allows the perpetually bored extras to trade in that Blade aesthetic for something that feels a little less "1999 Eurotrash." This also means that, unlike Awakening, Blood Wars also mostly stays within its means: save for some ghastly CGI werewolf transformations that are somehow worse than their 2003 counterparts, this effort doesn’t feel one step away from landing in a direct-to-video bin. Also, it allows Charles Dance to have a swordfight, meaning it’s automatically a step up on general principle.
Speaking of the action, Anna Foerster makes her feature film debut after spending two decades as a cinematographer, second-unit director, and effects artist. Her sharp visual acumen is especially evident during a scene that pits Selene against Marius. Extra wide shots emphasize the icy landscape surrounding them as the characters battle each other in a style that looks like it was ripped right out of a 2D video game, a comparison that’s meant to be a compliment in this case. There’s a clarity to it that’s certainly preferable to the murky, haphazardly cut action sequences that define much of the film, which is fine in the sense that it provides plenty of violence and gore, however weightless it might be. A climactic shot featuring two characters plugging CGI bullets into each other to absolutely no effect practically captures the essence of this gloriously dumb franchise.
I suppose Underworld is the rare series that allows me to consider the perspective of folks who are perplexed by the existence of certain franchises. Just as someone might roll their eyes at the notion of, say, another Friday the 13th movie, I stand as a bewildered outsider with the Underworld saga. I’ve never been its biggest fan, and its adherents might rightly ask what I would expect from Underworld 5—and they’d be totally right since I’m likely to mount the same defense of some other long-running franchise at some point. So, for better and for worse, Blood Wars is exactly what you probably expect from a fifth Underworld, and I am at least appreciative that this female-led action-horror franchise allowed a female director to take the helm, even if the former deserves better.
Of course, hope springs eternal in the form of a tease for yet another sequel that any Underworld fan has the right to be excited for. As someone eagerly awaiting the release of Resident Evil: The Final Chapter a few weeks from now, I am certainly in no position to judge.
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