Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
It’s hard to believe that it takes five films to finally kickstart a franchise, but such is the case for UNDERWORLD with their fifth installment, UNDERWORLD: BLOOD WARS. Putting a woman at the helm, OUTLANDER’s Anna Foerster, not only infuses the series with some new blood, but also inherently brings the defiantly feminist voice of the series’ protagonist into the foreground. It’s the best UNDERWORLD yet – and possibly where this franchise should’ve begun.
The film’s opening montage catches audiences up to speed in a succinct “previously on” cold open; elite “death dealer” Selene (Kate Beckinsale) is on the run from vampires and lycans (a.k.a. “werewolves”) alike. She’s been classified as vampire-non-grata since she fell in love with a lycan, killed her coven’s leader and had a baby with said lycan – a hybrid daughter, Eve, whose blood could end the war between vampires and lycans, depending on who gets to it first. In this fifth chapter, a very lonely, despondent Selene is still struggling with her decision to hide Eve away when fellow vamp David (Theo James) offers her sanctuary. The western coven, as pitched by councilwoman Semira (Laura Pulver) and backed up by David’s father Thomas (Charles Dance), want to offer Selene amnesty in hopes she’ll train their squad of newbie death-dealers against an impending lycan attack by their all-powerful leader, Marius (Tobias Menzies). Naturally slippery Semira has ulterior motives – because of course she does – which leads Selene and David to go on the run and uncover more about their pasts.
Aesthetically, this is a most sumptuous feast. It’s surprisingly not a CGI-driven orgy of wire stunts and ropey effects. Foerster takes great pains in making sure every penny spent is up on that screen. It’s more than just the bruisingly dank, black and blue color scheme. The details are crisp. Bojana Nikitovic and Ondrej Nekvasil’s respective costume and production design shine. Most impressive is that each of the action sequences – involving everything from swords clashing, to CG bullets flying – is distinct, coherently shot and assembled. Yes, we could do without the superhero posturing and Matrix sliding, but at least Foerster deals with moving past her mandated motifs swiftly. Artistry the audience can appreciate is surprisingly infused – an indicator of how far this franchise has come. Pulver (who’s like Eva Green minus the heavy kohl-eyeliner) and Dance (who can make anything better) add gravitas, as do the tertiary characters in the reclusive Kahleesi-inspired Eastern coven. Even better, it seems like a necessary, defining and shining move (even within this female-driven franchise) to place women in the power positions, in charge of the board and – as we see with Semira and her military head, Varga (Bradley James) – bedroom. Plus, most of the ladies have better fleshed out arcs than the men.
That said, in order for this to be viewed purely as entertainment, there are things you’re forced to ignore. Multiple exposition dumps courtesy of Cory Goodman’s screenplay noticeably bog the proceedings down, leading to a rushed feeling during a few key sequences. For selfish reasons, I valued it, mostly as a crutch to get up to speed. However, this sort of thing may annoy longtime fans of the series who don’t want details reiterated to them. Confounding minutia like seeing the newbies incinerated to ashes by UV bullets in one scene, then seeing that same crew sent out to find Selene and David moments later defies logic. While it comes close, the payoff of David and Selene’s sun-blocking skills doesn’t fully satisfy. I’m actually surprised it took the filmmakers FIVE films to set a climax during daylight hours, but here we are. The silliness factor should also be noted as the climax is fought with machine guns, which don’t really do much damage on either victim. Plus, it gets a little in the weeds when it attempts to draw a parallel between Selene’s abandonment of her daughter and David’s feelings of abandonment by his mother. An admirable effort was made, but it doesn’t connect as effortlessly as you’d think.
Despite all my verbal blood-letting, Foerster’s film engages and entertains. I, for one, hopes she continues with the franchise as she’s given it the feminist transfusion it so desperately needed.
UNDERWORLD: BLOOD WARS is now playing.