The last time we saw Kate Beckinsale’s blood-sucking, wolf-slaying, blade swishing Selene she was battling a digital were-blob in a car park at the arse end of Underworld: Awakening: the abominable third sequel which belted the franchise into apparent oblivion. Failing to keep her promise of reclaiming the world from Lycans, made during Awakening’s tepid finale, Selene vanished from our screens. Five years later and following a staggering turn in Love and Friendship, Kate Beckinsale returns, back on autopilot, into her comfort zone and to the role that made her famous. While half a decade can’t quite waft away the stench of its putrid predecessor, Underworld: Blood Wars is surprisingly decent and easily the best of the franchise so far.
Elite soldier Selene is living as an outcast with defector/ pseudo beau David (Theo James), hunted by Lycans and the fifteen century old vampire clan which she was previously a part of. Both wolf and vampire sects seek the blood of Selene’s hybrid daughter, who has wisely gone into hiding, but our heroine senses treachery. Meanwhile, Lycan leader Marius (Tobias Menzies) plans an attack against the Nordic coven while new to the series Semira (Lara Pulver), a sarcastic and insidious second in command to Charles Dance’s Dracula-like aristocrat Thomas, persuades her superior to talk the council into recruiting Selene to train their new recruits and lead them into a war against the machinating werewolves.
Underworld: Blood Wars differs from its predecessors by embracing classic horror aesthetics the franchise has previously avoided. After a shaky set-up, the story seems to find its feet, fashioning conflicts and twists before budding into a barnstorming bloodbath. Whirlwind action laced with exquisite/ synthetic gore graces an eventually sprightly plot as clunky exposition and convoluted character conflicts unfurl, paving the way for swashbuckling action which dominates the film’s second half. While Blood Wars may be flawed and blotchy, debut director Anna Foerster injects fun, vigour and a playful vitality: refreshing for a franchise which always took itself too seriously.
There is a storm of simulated snow, subterfuge and silliness which takes the form of skittish, CGI werewolves and digital blood blasts while “self-propelled bullets” recall the naff gadgetry of Brosnan era Bond films. Other fresh to the franchise tropes evoke Hammer, Tigon and Amicus. Big tongues licking blood off blades, sex slaves, rituals, vampires guzzling gore from goblets and severed heads brandished to a swarm of battling beasts, combine to cast Blood Wars in a pithy, pluckier light. The film is also bolstered by brilliantly edited action and slow-mo scenes in which vampires are obliterated by shafts of digital sunlight.
Foerster thankfully suppresses the buttoned down, post-Matrix bravura which governed earlier entries yet Blood Wars occasionally lacks Len Wiseman’s visual spark (even his maligned Die Hard 4.0 and Total Recall remake were stunning to look at despite being hollow). Cory Goodman’s script provides a punchy plot, sufficient character arcs and emotional substance. Selene expresses inner turmoil, admits to feeling dead inside and is definitely done with fighting (yeah right). While the tepid third and putrid fourth films fittingly lowered expectations, Underworld: Blood Wars triumphs as a rumbustious and jovial revitaliser. Although the prospect of a transformed werewolf, blasting a machine gun at a crowd of panicking vampires is teased but never quite surfaces, it is still forgivable fun.