If you’ve seen any of the previous four Underworld movies, you probably think you know what to expect from the latest instalment. And lord knows you’d be entirely right. A never-ending war between vampires and werewolves? Check. Post-Matrix gunplay? Of course. More leather outfits than the after party at London Alternative Market? Without a doubt. So why should you care at all about the latest in this aggressively generic franchise?
Well, that depends. Do you like fun? Because that’s what I find myself having here.
I know, I know. ‘This movie is fun’ is often a way of saying ‘This movie is demonstrably bad if you think about it, so can we just not think about it so I don’t admit I like something stupid?’ And while that may be partly true here, I came out of this movie feeling like I’d had a good time, so it would be intellectually dishonest to argue myself out of that feeling. Instead, I’m forced to ask: what was it about Underworld: Blood Wars that worked for me?
Broadly speaking? It’s the sheer pace of the film. Capably directed by Anna Foerster (and if that sounds like faint praise, just remember that after some of 2016’s blockbusters, capable is firmly above average), Blood Wars never sags, because it’s too shallow to let up for even a second. Like Wile E. Coyote strolling off a cliff into thin air, it can stay afloat as long as it doesn’t stop to look around, and it doesn’t ever make that mistake.
Now, if you checked out of the Underworld series sometime around 2006, you’re not exactly alone – so did most of the stars. Nevertheless, Underworld: Blood Wars sees Kate Beckinsale reprising her role as moody vampire death-dealer Selene, with a number of returning faces from the previous chapters, such as her blandly chiselled sidekick David (Theo James) and his generic vampire elder father, Thomas (Charles Dance). Also along for the ride are incoming antagonists Semira, a Bride of Dracula-alike played by Lara Pulver (aka Irene Adler from Sherlock) and Werewolf unity candidate Marius (Outlander’s Tobias Menzies).
It’s to the cast’s credit that they manage to sell the material, which involves vampiric in-fighting against a backdrop of werewolf assault. Again? Yes, again. But the material needs to work, because the film rests heavily on the franchise’s one real strength: it really, really takes all this shit seriously. Over the course of the last four films Underworld has built up a complex mythology for itself, and Blood Wars tries to recap all of it and chuck a bunch of its own in there too. There’s history everywhere. Artifacts, politics, personal vendettas, magic blood – you can’t hear three lines in this movie without getting information about something.
And I’m not going to lie: I was gripped. Considering it comes from a franchise with a high concept that makes video games look overwritten, Underworld: Blood Wars throws so many ideas at you that you’re always trying to figure things out. I can’t tell you whether the intervening chapters were this dense or whether this one is unusually so, but here at least you’re afforded just enough time to digest each new piece of information before they’re onto the next one, which may or may not matter. It doesn’t beat you over the head with what’s important, it just demands – nay, trusts – that you’ll keep up.
Admittedly, that’s not going to work for everyone. The characters are little more than sketches stepping through cliché after cliché, and most of the dialogue is so uninspired it’s like they accidentally filmed the large print edition of the script. It’s a humourless movie (though in a way I was oddly respectful of its total lack of irony), and characterless in that no-one has more than one personality trait. I’m not going to argue that this is a technically good movie.
That said, one thing that does work is the action. It’s flamboyantly choreographed, coherently shot, and surprisingly inventive. Gore fans will enjoy the combination of splatterhouse gunplay and Mortal Kombat-style physicality. This movie might not have any jokes, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t laughing when Selene pulled someone’s spine out through their back, or when David bisected someone with his magic sword (the entertainment value of these acts may vary).
Now, I have to admit that it’s entirely possible I’m just feeling generous because I enjoyed watching an action movie with a running time that let me get in, watch a bunch of stupid fighting and get out within an hour and a half. As someone who often feels like action movies turn into hostage situations somewhere around the turn of the second hour, I was pleased to see one that actually felt as though it had lost the unnecessary 20 minutes we criticise lots of other blockbusters for keeping in.
But what the hell. It’s January. If you want to see brainless action you’ve got to choose between Underworld: Blood Wars and Assassin’s Creed, and at least this one is deliberately aiming for schlocky fun. If you haven’t seen an Underworld movie before, or you quit the franchise a while back, why not give it a go? Based on this, I’m feeling oddly moved to go and catch up on the previous instalments of the series…
Underworld: Blood Wars is in UK cinemas from Friday.