2017 | rated R | starring Kate Beckinsale, Theo James, Charles Dance, Tobias Menzies | directed by Anna Foerester | 1hr 31mins |
Studio Pitch: In the last movie vampire hunter Selene fought to end the war between the vampires and the lycans, in this movie she will fight to end the war between the vampires and the lycans.
It’s kind of amazing to think that the Underworld series has slipped under the radar, grinding out entry after entry for so long that it’s relevance has shifted back and forth with the times. The series has stayed pretty much the same over the years – leather-clad vampire killer Selene plays a key role in the decades old war between vampires and Lycans – but our filter on each can change based on Hollywood trends around them. When the series started it felt like it was chasing behind the trends set up from other films – 2003’s Underworld felt like a vampire film assembled by hacks who just saw The Matrix. Then it piggy-backed on the success of the far more fun Resident Evil series, delivering the requisite monster action but totally unaware of that movie’s schlock B-movie charm. And now with Underworld: Blood Wars it shows to have outlived the Twilight-inspired vampire craze and feels almost ahead of the trends. In a year where Hollywood is pushing down hard on female action heroes with Wonder Woman and Atomic Blonde, its a reminder that Kate Beckinsale and Milla Jovovich have been whipping ass for the last 15 years.
In 2012 the series got an odd and welcome shock of life by bringing on Sweedish TV directors Mans Marlind and Bjorn Stein to helm Underworld: Awakening. While working within all the same series limitations, these guys honed in on the B-movie exploitation badassery that lurks under it’s usual story beats of vampire counsel meetings and forbidden romances, yanked them out and played those beats for all their bloody glory making Awakening an aptly titled, quick, efficient blast that hit the right notes. At the end of that movie I was actually excited about the next one.
Blood Wars – which again comes out timed around a new Resident Evil movie – is a return to business as usual for the most part. Visually, it looks drab, washed out in ugly, dreary blue streaks. It focuses on vampire counsel meetings, power grabs and the politics of the vampire hierarchy like a Star Wars prequel. It’s lycan vs. vampire fights are little more than your average shoot-out and fist-fight without a particularly creative deep dive into what would be a violent exchange of powers (Imagine an X-men movie where the mutants just endlessly shot at each other instead of using their unique abilities). The male lead is again wooden and forgettable, with Theo James (Divergent) replacing Scott Speedman in that role. In the middle of it is Kate Beckinsale, a solid actress, game for the action and poised to break into Milla Jovovich-level action movie cool, given the smallest of scraps to work with. In Blood Wars she is all reputation.
The movie is proceeded by a Previously On prologue that suggests it thinks it’s mythology is more complex than it is. Selene and wolf-guy had a baby hybrid and that baby hybrid is the proverbial “One” that all hybrids from Battlestar Galactica to Twilight are and she could save or destroy their society. Blood Wars finds both sides chasing after Selene for the whereabouts of her daughter, a set-up that the film has – disappointingly – no interest in paying off. Selene’s daughter, as it turns out, is a McGuffin. It is a frustrating reminder how so many of this series’ sequels – particularly this one – only exist, not as complete stories themselves, but as placeholders to tease the next movie. Then the next, then the next.
Director Anna Foerester sticks very close to the look and feel Len Wiseman established for the series, probably not the right call for a series teeing up it’s 4th sequel and could use a gasp of oxygen. The fun time revenge of Awakening is over and we’re back to a series that takes itself very seriously.
There is one creative little idea here that I can’t remember seeing explored this way in other vampire films. Early in the film, Selene drinks a character’s blood and absorbs his memories. The movie then builds nicely on this to a novel prospect: if vampire blood can hold memories, theoretically you could keep and store vampire blood for decades, centuries, and allow modern vampires to experience the truths of the past from the ancestors who lived it. It could be used to get the truth from them (which it is here), transfer power to a new leader or effectively time travel through memories Assassin’s Creed style. This device is used cleverly a couple of times. It might have even been the idea that got this sequel out of the pitch stage. Blood Wars!
It makes you think if you took all these nifty little ideas and put them into one movie and really built out that world instead of just filling time until the next sequel you’d really have something. As it is, they all feel incomplete and this one feels more incomplete than most.