Review: Underworld: Blood Wars
When it debuted in the fall of 2003, Len Wiseman’s Underworld didn’t seem like the kind of film with assured franchise potential, let alone one which would have lasted for over a decade. But now, we’re granted with the fifth – yes the fifth – installment in this series about the ongoing war between vampires and werewolves (Lycans, from here on out) led by Kate Beckinsale as the death-dealer Selene.
Underworld: Blood Wars is a serious improvement from the last entry, Awakening, which was easily the franchise’s lowest point to date and caused the producers to think about scrapping everything and rebooting the film with a brand new cast. While that never exactly came to fruition, this film does boast a cast of new faces, with only Theo James and Charles Dance from Awakening returning.
Coming from director Anna Foerster, who cut her teeth on television with Outlander and Criminal Minds among others, this chapter focuses on both the vampires and Lycans hunting down Selene, the former group after her for betraying the clan and murdering their elders, and the latter wanting to find the location of her daughter, Eve, whose blood would be able to engineer a new species of vampire-Lycan hybrids. Much of the story oscillates between each primary group, as we’re introduced to Marius (Tobias Menzies), the new leader of the Lycans who possesses more strength and control in his transformed body than any other of his kind, and Semira (Lara Pulver), a conniving vampire who seeks to become the new figurehead of the clan through several acts of betrayal.
While it can be argued that the Underworld films are merely style-over-substance exercises in vulgar auteurism, taking on a Matrix-esque aesthetic in more ways than one, they remain a reliable form of guilty pleasure entertainment. And here, the film really works to incorporate as many past characters and instances from past films, mainly through verbal exposition and flashbacks, but regardless, that amount of care goes a long way. That’s the one surefire aspect that makes it a major recovery from Awakening – which had a budget twice the size of this one, but still felt incredibly stale and stagnate – avoiding the mythos of the past to try and be a semi-reboot. Blood Wars takes things back to basics, and in the process is a leaner and meaner entry, and all the better for it.
What really helps too is the fleshing out of each respective side, to the point where its not so clear-cut who is good and who is evil here. Supporting characters get the opportunity to be more than merely two-dimensional caricatures, that avoids casting a purely good or evil light as a result. The audience is even able to find some good in the Lycans who have almost always been portrayed as ridiculously wicked up until this point.
The editing, like many others in this particular genre, is quickly paced, with the average shot lasting a fraction of a second in some cases, which at times is a little extreme but can be forgiven as it never becomes nauseating. There are some truly amazing action sequences here; most notably a cage fight in the first half between Selene and Semira’s underling Varga (Bradley James), that is gravity defying and full of force, and a near-climactic encounter between Selene and Marius in a frigid landscape that doesn’t pull any punches, to put it bluntly.
On that note, it’s also amazing to see Kate Beckinsale kicking so much ass, looking just the same as she did in the first Underworld film and even getting the opportunity to exert more power and force than ever before. There’s a major lack of long running female-led action franchises in Hollywood filmmaking, and this still remains one of the best. Having a female director behind the camera and more prominent female characters this time around adds to the experience – making me hope this film is successful enough to greenlight more projects like it.
The franchise on the whole hasn’t strayed far from the original, but that’s why it has remained exciting to return to. Sometimes you just need a tight, 90-minute actioner where contemporary versions of mythical creatures do battle with semi-automatics and swords, and this one doesn’t change things in the slightest.
It’s still unsure whether or not a sixth entry will happen – and the ending of Blood Wars wraps up Selene’s story in such a way that it could very well be the franchise’s conclusion. But given how much of a step up from the other sequels it is, I seriously hope that’s not the case. And should it continue, having Foerster calling the shots would be a great decision, as her style of filmmaking lends itself well to the genre. This is the Underworld film for fans who have felt let down by the past few, and on par with the original for sure. If this does end up being the series’ denouement, it’s a decent and capable finish, that brings the story full circle in a satisfying way.