Up until recently I’ve avoided the Underworld franchise. Not like the plague, but more like a bad cold. I’ve never had any inherent anger against it or any bias toward its fans. Sometimes you just know that something’s not quite your cup of tea and decide to leave well enough alone. The films didn’t look bad enough to investigate ironically, nor did they look good enough to watch.
Only recently, as research for my coverage of Underworld Awakening, did I watch the first three films with any intent of giving them my full attention. And while I didn’t like them per se, I could definitely see the appeal. The mythology, while kind of half baked when compared to something like Lord Of The Rings, is fairly intricate. And the concept of vampires vs. werewolves is universally intriguing, even if neither are represented in a way that tickles my fancy.
I’m also one of those people who thinks that the series has been improving over time. It’s been slowly shackling off its turgid neo-gothic trappings. Where it was once a Hot-Topic fetishist in love with regally absinthe tinged (and insufferable) affectation, it more and more leans towards a more action-packed “get in, get out, get the job done” mentality. While Rise Of The Lycans still occasionally reveled in goofy ‘ye olde’ english’ aesthetics, at least it had the sense to get on with its business with surprising efficacy. At least when compared to the bloated first installment.
So it’s with much pleasure that I can say that Underworld: Awakening almost utterly dispenses with the shenanigans of mythos and settles into a fairly relentless stream of action. And good action at that. Directors Marlind & Stein know exactly the kind of film they’re making and their approach is fairly meat and potatoes. Which is to say it’s a whole lot of meat and potatoes.
That’s not to say that this movie isn’t stupid. It’s dumb as bricks. But here, it’s as if a special needs child has finally been adopted by parents who love it unconditionally rather than try and make it into something that it’s not. Without the weight of unrealistic expectation (ie the boring portentous bits from the first two Underworld films), it flourishes unexpectedly.
Kate Beckinsale returns to the role with a new sense of vitality. It doesn’t require her to display much range, but it does require her to be an action star. And that is a very separate, distinct and difficult thing to do well. For my money (which isn’t much) Selene easily bests her onscreen contemporaries (Alice from Resident Evil, Lara Croft etc…)
Of course there’s still the standard issue supporting characters, none of whom have much going on. Theo James as David, a gallant vampire helper to Selene, more than ably lives up to the role’s requirement that someone with a vast amount of screen time somehow remain anonymous. Michael Ealy tries to imbue his Detective Sebastian with some pathos, but the movie won’t really let him get away with it given that he has to relay his hugely tragic backstory as a quick conversational aside.
More successful is India Eisley’s Eve. As someone who was raised in a lab* she doesn’t have a whole lot of history to draw upon, so even if she isn’t a hugely compelling character she’s certainly a compelling creature. Stephen Rea brings the exact amount of “master thespian gravitas” the producers knew they were buying when they paid him to sleepwalk through the film. That may sound like an insult, but it’s not. There’s almost a remarkable spark that accompanies this synergy of people cutting the bullsh*t and consciously embracing the humble simplicity of making a film designed only to be the very best kind of this type of movie.
And that’s exactly what Underworld: Awakening is. Sure I’m grading on a curve here, but it’s easily the best Underworld movie. I was actually entertained throughout its appropriately brief 88 minute running time. The action is kinetic, loud, brutal and nonstop. As it should be. The film simultaneously dials down the boring and ratchets up the chaos. For that I am grateful. I might not be dying to see this movie again, but I was certainly more entertained than I thought I was going to be after seeing the first three. If you’re already a fan of the franchise, I can only image that you’ll absolutely love it.
“Eve was raised in a lab by American scientists, yet has an English accent. I guess this proves that vampire accents are genetic.