What are the odds that anyone would bother to watch the fifth instalment of the Underworld franchise without having seen the previous four? Slimmer than it’s ridiculously buff cast, no doubt. And yet that’s precisely what I did.
Being fairly fresh to this reviewing caper, and very confident that a great deal of assumed knowledge wouldn’t be required to watch leather-clad vampires battle scruffy werewolves – sorry, ‘lycans’, which I assume they chose in the hope it’d sound less silly – I went in cold.
It’s all very cold, in fact. Not only are the vampires free of warm blood, not only does much of the film take place somewhere near the North Pole, with ice vampires who look like Lord of the Rings elves who lost out to bloodthirsty bats, but the entire film is so heavily graded that the only thing that isn’t tinted blue is the ubiquitous blood. There’s enough black leather to clothe even the largest motorcycle club, and I haven’t seen this many pale faces since my student job in a computer shop .
In this film, which helpfully summarises the previous four films in about 30 seconds of introduction, the banished ‘death dealer’ Selene (Kate Beckinsale) is invited back into the one remaining vampire fortress, the ‘eastern coven’, to help protect against the resurgent lycan pack that has already knocked many other vampire outposts around the world.
Their leader, Marius, apparently the Sun Tzu of werewolves, has figured out that some rudimentary level of strategy and organisation will make his pack more effective in their battle against the vampires. And given their approach to battle here is to rush en masse at their opponents, like, oh I don’t know, a bunch of wolves, they must have been absolutely rubbish at fighting in the first four films for Marius’ approach to constitute an improvement.
The blood war in question is over the red stuff coursing through the veins of the extremely unsubtly-named Eve, the daughter of Selene and Michael, a half-vampire-half-lycan who was a major player in earlier instalments. Apparently having one foot in both camps has given her super-blood with super-powers. And everyone wants it. Rest assured that a lack of familiarity with the series is no disadvantage to understand what’s going on – the plot isn’t much more complicated than ‘vampires and lycans hate each other’.
Selene’s hunky pal in this film is David, the son of this film’s ‘I can’t believe he’s in this’ elder statesman, Charles Dance, who plays Thomas – the audience isn’t capable of processing surnames, apparently. David has something of his own journey to go on, and indeed there are multiple journeys, and battles, and action sequences, and there isn’t much more in the way of a plot to get in their way. But even these big set pieces feel unsatisfyingly brief. Even the grand finale feels extremely abrupt. But then the last five minutes or so is mostly an ad for the next one.
Unfortunately for the filmmakers, and indeed Beckinsale who has enormous charisma and conviction, as well as a few excellent stunts to pull off, the ever-thin line between supernatural gothic horror and deeply silly camp is unintentionally crossed several times. Our audience burst out laughing on several supposedly serious occasions, which is never a great sign.
The actors are having fun hamming it up, it seems, in their groovy leather and shaggy coats. The blood drinking and extreme gore are cartoonish in their way, too. But the film doesn’t deliver the fun of the Blade series, which also features actors playing risible vampire material as though they were surrounded by WWI instead of CGI. Nor does it have the eye-popping ingenuity of The Matrix, whose costumes are a strong influence here. I can believe that many viewers would have enjoyed the vampire-on-werewolf action in the Twilight series more than Underworld: Blood Wars, which is just as big an indictment as it sounds.
The other major problem is that Marius is, at least until the final scene, a (relatively) likeable character whose ideas make good sense, so much so that if it wasn’t Kate Beckinsale’s daughter whose blood he was after, you’d be tempted to hand it over. Most of the vampires are downright unpleasant, coming across as spoiled, vicious plutocrats. If they weren’t holed in that fancy castle, they’d be on the shortlist for the Trump cabinet.
This latest hyperstylised Beckinsale vehicle will no doubt appeal to fans of the series, but even they will leave the cinema wishing that a more competent job had been done by first time director Anna Foerster. Nevertheless, there is absolutely zero chance that another episode won’t be made – not only was it explicitly set up, but these films must make money – they certainly haven’t pumped out five of them because of the artistic fulfilment they offer.
I’m no snob when it comes to trashy action films, believe me. And had this film delivered more scenes of Beckinsale simply kicking werewolves’ shaggy arses, I would have been on board. But unfortunately, Underworld: Blood Wars is just plain rubbish.
Culture Wars is a podcast where Giles Hardie and I guarantee disagreement on a film by tossing a coin – check out our take on Underworld – Blood Wars below. You can subscribe here or find our Facebook page here.