Underworld: Blood Wars (2017) ★★★½

Lest this review be dismissed as the ravings of an Underworld fanboy, let me state from the jump that I absolutely reviled the last two entries in this franchise, and was certainly grumbling over its continuation even as the house lights dimmed to introduce this brand new episode. Normally a January release, especially of a fifth installment in a weary story about vampires and werewolves, drenched in blue-filtered low light, offering increasingly diminished returns, would be a sure addition to the trash heap of forgotten cinema. But imagine my surprise at feeling more than a few times, that sudden rush of exhilaration and pulse-pounding joy that comes from a satisfyingly unspooling yarn of revelation and cathartic action, a fresh-but-familiar outing. Underworld: Blood Wars taps into that raw, pulpy brilliance that last flashed more than a decade ago with the original, and its sequel Underworld: Evolution, and if anything else, this review should serve as an appeal to casual series’ fans (and I don’t kid myself that this will appeal to anyone but) not to overlook what is one of the best entries, bringing new life and ushering in a potentially rejuvenated future to once-fledging storylines.

I only have a few rules for making a good Underworld picture:

1. There must be supreme attention paid to expanding the mythology. The third entry, Rise Of The Lycans, rejected this in its attempt to explore a part of the history of the war between vampires and werewolves that was previously deposed through expository dialogue. Its existence is an unnecessary stopgap, and should have gone straight to dvd. The fourth and most recent, Awakening, mistakenly introduced humans into the war and was merely a sequence of digressions and “jump the shark” moments that stretched credulity within its own internal logic to the breaking point. Blood Wars thankfully returns to the idea that the non-stop twists and turns of a pulp-rooted melodrama that has more than a few things in common with sprawling television dramas, and the near-constant barrage of revelations and character “enhancements,” have always been the beating heart and propulsive momentum of the series’ best moments, not the endless flash of post-Matrix slow motion, and gravity-defying, dyslexic martial arts.

2. Revelations must be tied action sequences. Rather than random bursts of action peppered throughout the film, Blood Wars is satisfied with minimum set pieces featuring violent showdowns. Yes, they are CGI-laden, with digital blood spray, but we’re long past any chance of a reasonable objection falling on attentive ears with that one. Instead, one should look to an actual purpose to action sequences, beyond the fulfillment of a genre requirement, and each one here culminates in some piece of information vital to understanding the story at large, or pointing to some future narrative thread, or, as I live and breathe, actually evolving characters.

3. Gore must be frequent, inventive, and believable. Let’s not kid ourselves, either. We are watching a film about vampires and werewolves fighting to the death. A staple of such chaos is and has always been graphic violence, which has thankfully allowed Underworld to remain one of the few post-Matrix action franchises that has been able to hold onto its R-rating. In a cinematic landscape flush with production contracts demanding a PG-13, these films, regardless of their respective quality, have always delivered to those tired of condescending off-screen violence.

4. A brisk pace and competently directed action sequences. Blood Wars is centered around three major set pieces, or battles, all blocked for maximum thrills by Anna Foerster, visual effects cinematographer for films such as Pitch Black and Independence Day, and director of photography for Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous and White House Down. Her prior technical experience is put to great use here, in a film that does not require nuances of character and emotion, but rather believable effects and action. While effects still utilize CGI, they are much better than Awakening, and there is a blend of the digital and practical to satisfying effect. The connective tissue between the set pieces, is full of delicious melodrama, and characters double-crossing each other, that there is nary a scene existing without purpose, to which screenwriter Cory Goodman should be credited, no stranger to such material as the previous writer of Priest and The Last Witch Hunter. Here working with pre-existing characters, he can concentrate solely on the drama.

Notice none of these rules require Underworld: Blood Wars to be any great diviner of truth, or strive for Oscar contention. Sure it’s trash for the most part, mild escapism of a very niche kind, that can easily be thrown under the bus when competing for your attention against all of the awards season films. I wouldn’t bother going to see this if you haven’t seen any of the previous films. But for those who recall with nostalgic glee, the intermittent moments of breathless wonder, experienced thirteen years ago in the theatre, where unlikely heroine Kate Beckinsale first donned her skin-tight leather outfit and kicked Lycan ass, have heart that Blood Wars does not merely continue the downward-spiraling, drain-circling path of previous installments. Give this one a chance, brush up on the first two if you must, and allow this film its ninety minutes to take you back, once again, into the blue-filtered, heavy-artilleried world of immortality, bloodletting, and shapeshifting.

The Verdict: Rave