Bad Blood

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This is it. I’m done.

Like for real. No more Underworld movies. I don’t give a fuck what Len Wiseman says to fix his ex-marriage to Kate Beckinsale. I don’t care that the final note of this films happens to scarily imply a sixth Underworld film. It makes no sense to continue it anyway.

It makes no sense for Underworld: Blood Wars to exist!

On a narrative schema, Underworld: Blood Wars has now ignored – once again – the concept of humans having a stake in this fight after Underworld: Awakening was all “now the humans know bout the monsters!” Much more severely than any of the other films, since while all the other movies at least have human characters popping their heads in to say “hey! we exist in this universe!”, Underworld: Blood Wars does not feature ONE human character for the first time in the franchise.

No sirree, it’s all on its vampire/werewolf Lycan war now since it’s trying to figure out a worthy final note for it to end on. And my problem with that is that we’ve had not one but TWO movies that insisted vampires vs. werewolves didn’t become a thing here until Viktor (Bill Nighy who appears in archive footage) and Lucian (Michael Sheen who I don’t think even appears in that capacity) had beef. Not only are Viktor and Lucian long dead by the time of this movie, all three of the vampire elders are out of it and yet this war still keeps raging on and on because… the producers thought 13 years was long enough for the characters to forget about that. I don’t even think Lucian gets mentioned by name in any of the sequels.

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I know it doesn’t do to linger on the mythology of the Underworld universe for logic or reason, but any excuse for the movie not to continue is a good one. Still it rolls on, this time all the way into the Eastern Europe covens of vampires and some mega-intelligent werewolf guerrilla leader by the name of Marius (Tobias Menzies) who is so good at his job he has the vampires scared. The Eastern coven is convinced by Semira (Lara Pulver playing the resident Eva Green femme fatale role) and Thomas (Charles Dance returning) to forgive Selene’s murder of Viktor so she can train them to fight werewolves, but this turns out to be a diversion for Semira to actually massacre several vampires (amongst them Thomas) and frame Selene and Thomas’ son and Selene’s buddy David (Theo James) for the betrayal.

Oh ho! Betrayal is the name of the plot game here, for this movie is devoted to acting like an extended episode of Game of Thrones where everybody betrays everyone and the choice of having a director of Outlander episodes, Anna Foerster, take the helm seems to promise that especially in its tone. Every single character is playing a game of Risk. Badly. In any case, what isn’t promised is the lack of color processing to blues, although it changes it up by adding a lot more angelic whites and greys when we meet the peaceful Nordic vampire cult and witness their special “resurrection” ritual that only adds more to the inevitability of Selene becoming the angriest Vampire Jesus around, what with her “can walk in the sunlight” blood and the blood of her non-present vampire-Lycan daughter Eve being the MacGuffin for every character.

The action is what any sane person comes for and this is a lot more sanitized than is necessary (although there is an interesting point where it almost turns into a feminist screed with Selene out-sparring the assassin trainer Varga, but that goes down the drain before the scene is over with his actions). It’s largely bloodless for a movie more dedicated to swordplay than the other Underworlds except for the final battle between Selene and Marius and that is the punchline to a battle too short to even realize it happened. It’s just as visually boring to look at as the other films and it doesn’t compliment the film that it all just happens to stop with a “whelp, we’re done fighting” for the whole franchise.

Just like me with this review now that I reached my minimum word count. I’m out.

It’s gonna take a long-ass while (and a lot of Whit Stillman) before looking at Kate Beckinsale doesn’t trigger me, but I did it. I’m done with this franchise.

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Feed to the Wolves

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Almost every single one of the Underworld movies, save for the first film and the current subject Underworld: Rise of Lycans, begin in a manner similar to a television series: the exact same montage of the exact same clips with the exact same voiceover given by our icy vampire protagonist Selene (Kate Beckinsale). I’ve witnessed the same damn shot of Bill Nighy’s head getting sliced off more times than I can count. This could be Underworld assuming that anybody would be interested in watching those movies without dealing with the previous films, but that just seems like cruelly leading moths to flames and so I want to pretend the fault is entirely in the filmmakers not trusting its audience to simply get it. We get it. We know the story.

Rise of the Lycans is a prequel film set before the first film (yet after the prelude to Evolution) that provides ample evidence that yes, the writers and producers of the Underworld series are not above regurgitating information we already know and that they know we know. The very basis of the film’s existence – other than continuing the successful franchise’s brand in spite of Beckinsale’s wise decision not to return to the franchise and taking her then-husband and director of the first two films Len Wiseman with her (though he still stayed on as producer and story writer) – is to tell us about a matter WE KNOW already happened, not because the characters in the first Underworld already discussed, but because we already SAW IT – including the pivotal moment that led to the central conflict in the ongoing between vampires and werewolf Lycans.

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Evidently, the contract the producers had on Michael Sheen and Nighy from the first film was probably running and they wanted to use them up all the way, hence that moment is stretched to 90 odd minutes as we witness the vampires, led by Viktor (Nighty), enslave the werewolf race back in the 5th Century.Viktor particularly takes a liking to Lucian (Sheen) as his personal pet and Viktor’s daughter Sonja (Rhona Mitra) shares that very liking. So it’s almost no surprise when Rise of the Lycans retreads the good ol’ forbidden love trope to throw the races into eternal battle and here’s where I learned something very interesting. Kevin Grevioux, owner of one of the coolest voices I’ve ever heard on an actor, appears in both this and the first installment as Lucian’s right-hand werewolf Raze. That is not Grevioux’s only role – he actually developed this franchise and co-wrote the film based on his own experiences with interracial dating and the backlash and bigotry he suffered with it (Grevioux being black). Now, the emotional stakes and mythology within any of the films have never been more clear in all five movies as it has been here in Rise of the Lycans, where Lucian basically embodies a werewolf Spartacus. But it also means the only source of true personality in the film comes from an off-screen trivia item and it also doesn’t help its case that Grevioux is sidelined while the lead werewolf SLAVE is played by a white man, which means any racial commentary the Underworld franchise is interested in (and I think it’s oblivious given that the only two non-white actors I can recall in it are Grevioux and Robbie Gee off the top of my head and they’re both disposable characters) is dismissed outright.

Anyway, it’s not such a crime that Sheen has to lead the show because he’s easily the best performance in the film, although it’s clear he may not having as much fun as he did in here as he did with the first film. He sucked out all the scenery chewing he pulled off as the rock star performance he gave prior to becoming instead a scowling and angry figure full of obvious anger, matching Mitra because they’re the most facially pissed-off figures in the film and that’s their chemistry in a nutshell. Nighy, in the meantime, also clearly is not having much fun away and so his acting is the type that wants to burn the whole place down, trying to make himself as big and unwieldily theatrical as he can do it. Snarling and spitting and yelling, Nighy does it all. And these performances all clash with each other so that’s just another good thing that goes hella wrong.

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Want another good thing Rise of the Lycans does right? No guns. It’s the 5th Century, so that means swordfights entirely. And while y’know, it’s still hella boring to make your werewolves and vampires just go at each other with swords rather than use their monstrous bodies, there it is and it at least lets the movie feel more gothic than nu-metal. Want to know how Rise ruins that shit anyway? Director Patrick Tatopoulos and cinematographer Ross Emery underlit that shit all to hell and still can’t spare any color beyond the most obnoxious blues. So, that’s a complete hell.

And it can’t be said enough: this is a story we already knew (especially its climactic moment), finished off with a fanservice Windows Movie Maker-looking epilogue that separates entirely from this individual film’s plot and makes NO SENSE to anybody who didn’t see the original films (as well as implying that Selene should not have been surprised by the revelation of Viktor in the first movie). Nobody needed to make Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, nor should anybody suffer it. We should all just go home. I just want to get this over with.

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It Bites

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It’s embarrassing to know that if I had seen Underworld at the age of 11 when it came out and I overheard some of the classmates I was desperately trying to be friends with say how cool it was, I would have loved it and thought “so awesome, man.” Instead, I am at the age of 24 when I have seen it for the first time in my life and know better than to fall for whatever faux-gothic slick leather cool wire-fu action flick comes out on the spurs of The Matrix‘s own slick leather cool wire-fu action flick success.

That’s not hyperbole. Underworld is exactly the type of movie that could only exist how it is in 2003, dated to the dot by its presence of Kate Beckinsale whuppin’ ass in tight black leather, its fascination with vampires and werewolves without real interest in using their mythology except insofar as a vehicle for bullet time sequences. It is a movie that wears its influence from Matrix and Blade on its sleeve while preceding so many women kicks ass in tight clothing movies such as Aeon Flux and basically Milla Jovovich’s entire career. The effects are that dated, with flat blood splatters, shiny and rubbery CGI, or static body prosthetics for practical werewolves. And director Len Wiseman giving the soundtrack it’s unrestrained indulgence with industrial metal and color correcting every single shoot to the steeliest of blue (which is at the least more visually pleasant than the greens of The Matrix) is part of what dates the film most. I’m serious about the industrial metal element, the score by Paul Haslinger thuds accordingly with echoes and, my hand to god, the movie shoves in a remix to A Perfect Circle’s “Judith” so eagerly it keeps certain lyrics audible, including “fuck your god”, for no other reason than it’s what the cool kids were into.

Looking cool in that early 2000s manner is exactly what Underworld is concerned with. No room for logic in a movie where the premise is as simple as an ongoing war between vampires and the werewolf Lycans rages on around vampire assassin Selene (the too-talented-for-this Kate Beckinsale in her unfortunately best-known performance). She discovers two things that must not be: that the Lycans’ leader Lucian (a never-more-hammy Michael Sheen relishing the scenery in his mouth) is alive despite the claims by vampire de facto leader Kraven (Shane Brolly) and Lucian is weirdly fixated on a medic Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman). With the alarming addition that the Lycans have weaponized UV rays into a bullet, Selene is getting close to appealing over Kraven’s obstruction to the dormant vampire superior Viktor (Bill Nighy) during her own investigation of the matter.

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It barely makes sense. It doesn’t make sense for vampires and werewolves to shoot each other in subways rather than fight like monsters. It doesn’t make sense for them to be shooting at each other when they knew it wouldn’t work until they weaponize light and silver. It doesn’t make sense that the sets look European (the international production was shot in Hungary) but half of the cast – including local police and medical – speak in American accents. Selene literally has a scene talking into a mirror and it doesn’t seem like it’s necessary to break vampire mythology so.

Beckinsale and Nighy both treat this scenario with more gravity than necessary (which is why the best scenes are when they’re confronting each other), Beckinsale with a confused yet compelling icy visage in every moment, giving focus to anything that crosses her and Nighy by upping the authoritative logos (even when Viktor is clearly wrong) that he heightens like he’s in Shakespeare. Nighy’s ability to be big is aided by Sheen using the pathos of Lucian’s tragic backstory to be the loudest figure in every shot and selling it because Sheen is every bit as qualified an actor as Nighy and Beckinsale. This trilogy is what drives a ridiculous premise and bootleg goth Matrix aesthetic a good half hour than it needs to be (the film is a little under two hours).

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The biggest sign of Wiseman’s poor craftsmanship of Underworld lies in two voices. Brolly is clearly attempting an American accent for his Kraven and yet there is not a second of this where he’s not obviously Irish and his laboring swallows the life out of any line readings. In the meantime, there is also the fact that Robbie Gee wears prosthetic fangs in his makeup and you hear it impede his speech in every scene he’s in and yet clearly they either didn’t bother doing ADR work on him or he was still wearing fangs during it. Why? Beats me.

Underworld‘s not trying to be a work of art. A man dies in it because his chain whip gets stuck under a rock. So I can see why people might find it trashy fun in all of the Victorian carts and overlit sewer action, but I’d be lying to say I don’t get tired of it before the halfway point and the work it goes through to complicate its plot – including how many times Michael slips between Vampire custody and Lycan custody – is alienating. It is what it is in the end and I still know kid me would have rewatched it. But kid me also had Van Helsing as a favorite movie.

shudder

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