Near the end of Underworld, the 2003 film that launched the popular (and profitable) horror franchise, Viktor (Bill Nighy), king of the vampires, tries to kill the werewolf (aka Lycan) lover of his protégé, Selene (Kate Beckinsale), and she is not pleased. Grabbing a sword, Selene leaps straight up and over Viktor, gently swiping his face with the sword as she passes. Glaring at her, he then takes a battle stance, his own blades drawn, but suddenly, puzzlement fills his eyes. There is a pause, and then the diagonal sword slice across Viktor’s face fills with blood and half his head — eyes still looking puzzled — oozes to the ground.
Viktor’s wittily gory demise, as directed by Len Wiseman, never grows old, which is both wonderful and sad because it turns out to be the single memorable moment from a film series that’s been around for 14 long years. The fifth entry, Underworld: Blood Wars, produced by Wiseman and directed by newcomer Anna Foerster, has received brutal reviews (fangs out!), but it’s actually not the worst thing ever — that would be 2012’s Underworld: Awakening, which happens to be the only other film in this series that Wiseman didn’t direct. Coincidence?
This time out, Selene and her vampire cohort, David (Theo James), are trying to prevent Marius (Tobias Menzies), a power-mad Lycan leader, and Semira (Lara Pulver), an equally ambitious vampire diva, from getting their teeth into Selene’s long-lost daughter, whose vamp/wolf mixed blood is the prize of prizes.
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Devoted Underworld fans (and they are legion) will find heaps of new vampire/Lycan lore to parse, and the action is nonstop, though wildly inconsistent. Forester doesn’t seem to know what to do with a castle jammed with angry wolves and vamps; she's much better with Selene’s intimate final showdown with Marius. That fight takes place atop a snowy Nordic mountain near the Northern Lights, and the possibility that the setting was inspired by the animated hit Frozen is the only interesting thing about this movie.
Beyond the sight of Beckinsale slaying her enemies while clad in a black latex bodysuit, the ongoing appeal of the Underworld series surely lies in its villains, vampire and werewolf alike, and the absurdly overqualified British actors who play them. Besides the great Nighy, Stephen Rea, Charles Dance, Derek Jacobi and — most memorably, in three films now — Michael Sheen have brought a wicked glee to a series whose heroine (no offense) is serious to a fault.
For Marius, the evil Lycan leader of the newest film, Forester has enlisted Tobias Menzies, whom she directed in several episodes of the cable series Outlander. Wildly talented, Menzies should be just the spark to bring Underworld back to life, but it doesn’t happen. Screenwriter Cory Goodman (The Last Witch Hunter) isolates Marius from Selene and the other major players so that Menzies is left adrift, like a great fighter without a worthy sparring partner.
This series is listing, badly, which raises the question: Should Beckinsale hang up that latex suit? Although she’s always given her all to Selene, the Underworld flicks have felt like a fallback for the actress, who was long overdue for a great role. Last year, she finally found it, as the delightfully conniving Lady Susan in the sublime Jane Austen comedy Love & Friendship. Beckinsale is a revelation, not least because Lady Susan is everything Selene can never be: fully and vividly alive.