‘If your tolerance for mediocre action-horrors is high, you could do worse for an hour and a half’ – MacDara Conroy on Underworld: Blood Wars
‘Wait a minute, there are five Underworld movies?!’ Those were my first thoughts upon Underworld: Blood Wars landing on my schedule (unlike elsewhere, it was screened for critics in Ireland). Having tried, and failed, to watch 2003’s mind-numbingly dull first instalment, it was some surprise to learn a second, third and fourth followed, in 2006, 2009 and 2012 respectively, before this latest chapter in the goth-chic vampires-versus-werewolves saga.
It’s one only matched by its Screen Gems stablemate, the similarly persistent Resident Evil series (also due a new instalment in coming months), for its rock-bottom ratio of output volume to critical plaudits, and cultural cachet. Both action-horror franchises have their hardcore fans, for sure, and the box office figures show there’s clearly an appetite out there somewhere (Blood Wars has already made made double its budget in the US). But they are shunned within the geek culture canon.
That’s ironic, given the palaver over last year’s Ghostbusters reboot, when both franchises are built around strong female leads. For all else one can say about films like these — they probably don’t pass the Bechdel Test, for one (though neither does Rogue One, ahem) — Underworld’s PVC-clad Kate Beckinsale and Resident Evil zombie hunter Milla Jovovich are at least consistently portrayed as badasses. But mostly their reputation, or lack of it, is down to the fact that the films are simply not that much cop.
So what to make of Underworld number five? If your tolerance for mediocre action-horrors is high, you could do worse for an hour and a half. And no mind if you haven’t seen the other four. Predictably, the opening moments catch up fresh viewers with a ‘previously, in the Underworld series’ voiceover from the lead, though the lore is so convoluted, it’s not the end of the world if you can’t make heads or tails of it.
From what I could gather, Selene the vampire (Beckinsale) is a ‘death dealer’, an elite hunter of lycans — werewolves to me and you — who went rogue after killing her vampire sire. Oh, and there’s a whole thing over her dalliance with a vampire-werewolf hybrid that produced a daughter she’s had spirited away somewhere even she doesn’t know, and whose blood inevitably holds the key to either unity of the vampire and lycan races or the complete destruction of everyone and everything, depending on who wants it and what they’ll do with it. Simple, really.
Blood Wars hits the ground running as Selene is pursued by a gang of lycan thugs working for Marius (Tobias Menzies, TV’s Outlander), a charismatic new leader who might be the galvanising element to secure lycan victory once and for all. In response to that threat, Selene receives clemency from her fellow bloodsuckers in the Eastern Coven — Prague to me and you — in exchange for training a squad of raw recruit death dealers, but she’s right to be suspicious of the politically ambitious Semira (Lara Pulver) as things turn decidedly Game of Thrones, including a trip up north of the wall to a bleach-haired vampire clan who might as well be the Targaryens on ice.
Perhaps eager to avoid the tedium of co-creator Len Wiseman’s first efforts in the series, debuting feature director Anna Foerster (a long-time associate of Roland Emmerich) keeps things moving at a brisk pace, at times almost too rushed to digest its goings on. There’s little pause for breath as Selene and her gun-toting companion David (blank-faced Theo James) fight their way from one tight squeeze to the next. If you want blood, you’ve got it: countless bodies are pierced by machine gun rounds, heads are sliced with swords, spines are ripped from backs. If you’ve played any Mortal Kombat games recently, you know what to expect. (The effects are about on the same level, too.)
The film does have some sense of its own preposterousness, such as one nudge-nudge scene where Selene grabs from a series of increasingly more hefty and powerful weapons to riddle an enemy with bullet hell. It’s as if they’re trying to say ‘we get it, this is ridiculous, just sit back and enjoy’. That’s easier said than done, however, when our heroes have the charisma of a brick. Beckinsale’s rigid face might work for her stoic character, but it also means the viewer won’t care much for Selene’s motivations. James, meanwhile, is just a Topman model at a goth-themed photoshoot.
Thankfully there’s also Charles Dance, who lends his usual unflappable gravitas to the silliest of material as a vampire elder. But it’s Pulver who really stands out. Better known for her turns on TV’s Spooks and Sherlock, and the West End production of Gypsy, she vamps it up like Eva Green as the duplicitous Semira, digging her fangs into every scene with a gusto the film doesn’t really deserve. Good on her for trying, though.
Underworld: Blood Wars opened nationwide on Friday January 13th