The latest in the vampires-versus-werewolves saga is an exercise in series continuation that can't conjure up any new intrigue.
In Underworld: Blood Wars, fangs and claws stay sharp, while leather outfits and flowing locks still shine; alas, there’s little other bite or gloss to the fifth instalment in the vampires-versus-werewolves franchise. In an exercise in series continuation that struggles to conjure up any chapter-specific intrigue, the two supernatural creatures once again do battle — and bloodsucking warrior turned outcast Selene (Kate Beckinsale, Love & Friendship) is once again placed in the middle.
Given the saga’s episodic nature, it’s fitting that first-time feature director Anna Foerster (TV’s Outlander) opens her addition to the fold with the equivalent of a television-style “previously on Underworld” recap. And while it might also stay true to the franchise’s modus operandi to render everything that follows a barely-diverting place-holder for more to come — with a sixth movie and a small screen iteration long rumoured — transitioning what began as an otherworldly spin on Romeo and Juliet-esque forbidden paramours into a castle-based, turf war-oriented Game of Thrones imitator doesn’t do Underworld: Blood Wars any favours.
After being branded a traitor to her kind for her actions to date, and continuing to try to evade the pain of giving up her vampire-werewolf hybrid daughter Eve for everyone’s safety, Selene is surprised to be summoned back to the coven overseen by the wily Semira (Lara Pulver, Da Vinci’s Demons). With the shape-shifting Lycans unrelenting in their quest to track down Eve, Selene is asked to impart her Death Dealer skills to the next generation of fanged fighters; however internal vendettas and politics still reign supreme. Elder Thomas (Charles Dance, Me Before You) and his son David (Theo James, War on Everyone) remain her allies, but scheming werewolf leader Marius (Tobias Menzies, The Night Manager) proves just one of her enemies.
Soon, everyone is doing battle on multiple fronts: squabbling in-house, scuffling whenever the two types of beings cross paths, and eventually scampering off to an isolated fortress populated by white-haired vamps for more of the latter. Words are flung around as much as weapons, to the point that much of Underworld: Blood Wars seems restrained on the action front. As rote as much of the physical confrontation is, when it comes — a standout one-on-one showdown on an iced-over lake aside — curtailing the CGI-heavy mayhem is hardly a welcome change. The Underworld franchise has never boasted entertaining dialogue or well fleshed-out mythology, with Cory Goodman’s (The Last Witch Hunter) script (based on a story written with Machete Kills’ Kyle Ward) endeavouring, unconvincingly, to lay both on as thickly as possible.
Accordingly, perhaps here more than any of the three preceding efforts she has starred in (sitting out prequel Rise of the Lycans), Beckinsale bears the brunt of livening up the grey-toned, shadow-soaked drama. It’s with a grim frown that she attempts to add interest, but there’s no trace of texture or energy threatening to seep out of her performance. Instead, Pulver increasingly becomes the most engaging on-screen player to watch, perhaps because she’s saddled with embodying Underworld: Blood Wars’ not-quite-intentional slide into more comic, over-the-top territory. Elsewhere, Dance, James and Menzies grimace and bear their stock-standard roles — gloomily, broodingly and none-too-thrillingly, aping the feature as a whole.
Rating: 1 ½ stars out of 5
Underworld: Blood Wars
Director: Anna Foerster
USA, 2016, 91 mins
Release date: December 1