It’s gun-blazing, body-splattering business as usual for the fifth installment of the ‘Underworld’ series, in which fashionista Vampire Kate Beckinsale leads a war against the Lycans.
It’s always fun to see a classy, venerable British actor grunge it up by letting himself be cast in the role of a real black-leather badass. In last year’s “Green Room,” Patrick Stewart did reasonably well as the leader of a backwoods-biker white-supremacist cult (though he did kind of come off as the nicest hater you’d ever seen). Now, in “Underworld: Blood Wars,” the fifth installment of the vampires-kick-ass action horror series, Charles Dance, fresh from “Game of Thrones” and movies like “The Imitation Game,” shows up as a Vampire elder, and from the moment he strolls into the coven castle in his long black coat, looming over everyone with a look of extreme arrogance that says, “I am so bored by all of you that ripping your throats out would provide me with great relief,” he isn’t playing. Stewart, in “Green Room,” communicated that he was willing to kill people; Dance lets you know that he’d do it casually. This is what it looks like when a master actor updates British class snobbery to the debased imperatives of fantasy action cinema.
For half an hour or so, “Blood Wars” makes a token stab at actual theatrical drama in order to set up the ballistic body-splattering that is its real reason for being. At the Council of the Eastern Coven, the last stronghold of Vampire power in the war with the shape-shifting Lycans, who look like Ray Harryhausen creatures (and are now on the verge of winning the war), Dance’s Thomas shows up to help his fellow bloodsuckers mount a campaign to save their species. He knows there’s only one hope: They must summon Selene (Kate Beckinsale), the pure-blood heroine with the silver-grey alien eyes and the wet-look ’90s salon hair, to lead the rebellion.
Selene has been a pariah ever since she murdered Viktor, the Vampire Elder from “Underworld: Evolution” and “Underworld: Rise of the Lycans,” who was her mentor (though, of course, she had her reasons for offing him). Nevertheless, the leaders of the Eastern Coven are convinced to take her back so that she can train a new generation of recruits. The most interesting among them is the coven’s rising star, Semira, played by the terrific Lara Pulver, who masks her schemer’s evil in a twinkling moral elegance that wouldn’t be out of place in Jane Austen. Next to her and Dance and a few of their gnashing aristocrat Vampire colleagues, it’s no wonder that Selene, even after all that she has been through, comes off as something of an innocent.
Beckinsale, still twirling and kicking in the same vinyl S&M catsuit, has made this her franchise day job for 15 years now, and “Blood Wars,” directed with lugubrious competence by newcomer-to-the-series Anna Foerster, should satisfy fans of the “Underworld” movies just enough to live up to the previous films’ success (they have all generated in the range of $50-60 million domestic), and to guarantee that Beckinsale, if she so chooses, can ride out this saga some more. At this point she almost needs to, given that the story set up in “Blood Wars” hinges on her Vampire-Lycan-Immortal Hybrid daughter, Eve, the first of her kind (are you getting the symbolism?), who is only in the movie in flashback. The question is, who will play Eve in an upcoming sequel to be called something like “Underworld: Eve of Destruction” or “Underworld: Daughter of Death”? One can envision Anya Taylor-Joy from “The Witch,” if she hasn’t already moved on to bigger (or at least better) things.
Theo James, from the “Divergent” series, is on hand here, with his swarthy GQ impeccableness, as David, who becomes Selene’s partner. As soon as the two are forced to flee the coven, though, “Blood Wars” turns into a rote supernatural chase thriller that’s basically a countdown to the Vampire-meets-Lycan apocalypse. The two land at a coven of blond Vampires in long white frocks (who serve no real purpose apart from providing that heavenly peroxide look), where they gear up for battle. The reason the Lycans are doing so well in the fight is that they’re now led by Marius, who is some sort of enhanced Lycan. As played by Tobias Menzies, he seems kind of like a Hybrid too — of Benedict Cumberbatch and David Carradine. Really, though, there’s not much to this alleged uber-villain. The “Underworld” series is all about substituting endless prattling reams of backstory for what we would have referred to, in an earlier century, as “character development.”
In “Blood Wars,” the action slaughter is its own (numbing) reward, but there’s an element of kitsch built into the video-game mega-violence, since we’re supposed to be watching mystical creatures whose very existence defies death — yet to sate the audience demand for obliteration, they can be killed, seemingly at random, by such old-fashioned means as swords and machine guns. There’s a story, and a mythology, and a prestige actress who knows how to push moodiness to the point that, in this series, it’s just about her only mood, but none of it, in the end, gets in the way of the splatter.