‘Underworld: Blood Wars’ a wholehearted failure

Sunday, January 8, 2017 - 4:56pm

The seriousness with which the “Underworld” series treats itself has always been its greatest asset and detriment, lending credibility to the expansive, legitimately impressive mythology while draining the present-day action of some of the fun it could have had. The movies are occasionally passable, if mostly forgettable action-horror flicks. “Blood Wars” feels different than the other films of the franchise, as if the filmmakers knew they wanted to make another chapter in the series, but were unsure of what shape it would take. The result is a film that lacks weight in every part of itself — from its story, to its characters, to even the series’ particular brand of action.

That’s not to say it would be fair to expect the “Underworld” series to explore weighty themes or anything of the sort. They’re essentially B-list movies better known for their trademark “swords, sandals and semiautomatics” brand of insanity than any sort of complex plotting or layered characterization. Still, even the action falls flat in “Blood Wars,” with the crux of at least two action scenes being two men shooting each other with high-powered rifles at point blank range while screaming a la ’80s action stars. The action is further bogged down by the manic editing the series is equally well known for, which renders what could have been entertaining combat hard to understand and harder to enjoy.

Even the story doesn’t feel like it has any real purpose with regards to the world the filmmakers have spent four films and fourteen years constructing. “Blood Wars” centers around the rise of Marius (Tobias Menzies, “Outlander”), a Lycan who has the power to make the movie enter an incomprehensible, choppy slow motion whenever he comes on screen. He wants the blood of Selene’s (Kate Beckinsale, “Love & Friendship”) daughter, but Selene doesn’t know where she is, so he simply decides to kill people. It feels incredibly pointless. There’s also an out-of-place subplot featuring the political machinations of one of the vampires, as if director Anna Foerster (“Outlander”) believes herself to be making some sort of monochromatic episode of “Game of Thrones.”

Even components that feel like they should have enormous weight for the characters and should contribute to something, anything, resembling an arc are glossed over in a matter of seconds. “Blood Wars” seems to genuinely believe that it has character arcs, but the characters are, for all intents and purposes, the same people they were at the beginning of the story. They have changed only in physical location and status. It’s hard to give “Awakening,” the previous worst film in the franchise, credit for much, but Selene had an actual emotional transition over the course of the film.

With that in mind, it is difficult to criticize the talented cast for what amounts to a collection of phoned-in performances. They’re simply given nothing with which to work. Beckinsale, ever the series’ hidden weapon, manages a few scenes of legitimate emotion, but the script strands her in a plotline involving an early frontrunner for deus ex machina of the year. The rest of the characters are burdened with constantly saying exactly what they’re thinking and entire scenes pass where nothing is spoken except clunky exposition.

If there’s one thing that can be said for the “Underworld” movies, it’s that they have always tried. They have aimed to create a unique mythology and to create interesting stories. Whether or not they have succeeded is up to individual assessment, but “Blood Wars” seems like the film where the filmmakers stopped trying. By the time the credits roll, the whole thing just feels meaningless and unnecessary. Hardcore fans of the series may find something to enjoy, but those on the fence will likely find it unsatisfying and overall unentertaining.