When we last left vampire Death Dealer Selene (Kate Beckinsale) and her lover, vampire/lycan hybrid Michael (Scott Speedman), at the end of Underworld: Evolution (we can ignore the fairly unnecessary prequel film, Rise of the Lycans), they had successfully defeated both the sole remaining vampire elder Marcus, the first vampire, and his brother William, the first werewolf. What’s more, Selene had acquired new, somewhat undefined powers – we could assume enhanced strength and agility, and we knew for sure she could now walk in daylight. With the leaders of both the vampires and lycans dead, and what remained of the clans thrown into chaos because of their actions, Selene and Michael stood at a crucial turning point in the centuries-long war between the two sides.

Yeah, well, forget about all that.

Underworld: Awakening is an odd sequel. The series’ producers apparently either don’t believe in the old “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” maxim, or they actually did think the series was broke and needed a jump-start. And so they have ignored the more obvious directions suggested by Evolution, and have instead decided to give the whole thing a re-tooling. Although Awakening is more respectful of the original film’s mythology than I initially assumed (based on early plot descriptions and trailers), it still goes to great lengths to re-frame that mythology in a new context which almost makes the movie feel like something of a series do-over.

Soon after the events of Evolution, humanity finally learned of the existence of both vampires and lycans, and were not surprisingly somewhat concerned about the whole thing. This led to “the Purge,” in which mankind put aside its differences with one another and banded together to wipe out both races. Finding this new battle impossible to win, Selene and Michael attempted to flee from civilization, only to find themselves ambushed and Selene captured (this is where the hardcore Scott Speedman fans out there will probably tune out, as the character of Michael appears only briefly, portrayed not by Speedman, but rather an unconvincing double).

Flash-forward 12 years, and Selene suddenly wakes from a cryogenic slumber in the headquarters of pharmaceutical company Antigen, who have been employed by the world’s governments to discover a cure for both the vampire and lycan virus.  Now broken out of her captivity, Selene slips her old leather Death Dealer outfit on (why Antigen decided to keep her clothes on display next to her body for 12 years is a question for smarter men than me, I guess) and violently escapes from the facility, only to find herself now faced with a world she barely recognizes, one in which both vampires and lycans are near extinction. What she does know is that something else escaped with her. And although she initially suspects her missing lover, she soon discovers it is in fact a little 12-year-old girl named Eve, who appears to have the same hybrid attributes as Michael. Do I really need to insult anyone’s intelligence by explaining just who this girl is? No? Good, I didn’t think so.

Aided by a brash young vampire named David (Theo James), Selene and Eve take refuge with one of the last remaining vampire covens, led by David’s father, Thomas (Charles Dance). A far cry from the bold and decadent leaders of the pre-Purge days, Thomas is content to keep his coven in a rather miserable existence of hiding underground, and certainly wants nothing to do with the trouble Selene and Eve bring to his doorstep, as they are pursued not only by Antigen head Jacob Lane (Stephen Rea), but also by a pack of lycans led by a particularly giant werewolf. This is especially baffling, as lycans have remained even more under-the-radar than vampires in recent years. Why they would suddenly resurface to capture Evem and what is their possible connection to Antigen? These questions form the main mystery of Awakening, and I won’t give it away here. Suffice to say that when the explanation does come is when the pieces finally do fit together, and you realize the film hasn’t been as quick to ditch the core tenets of  Underworld as the earlier acts would have you believe (though it is a little odd to see the lycans once again cast as the villains, following a prequel film that went out of its way to tell us they were actually the misunderstood victims of the war).

For my money (and let’s not forget that was a little bit more money than usual, since I saw this sucker in 3D), there’s actually quite a bit to like about this new Underworld. Granted, there’s some of the old “power of lowered expectations” at play here. I went into this one mostly out of a sense of obligation to the series, which I have always enjoyed despite its rather obvious flaws. But I was worried that the franchise’s time had come and went; hearing that the villain of this piece was a pharmaceutical company and believing that most of the series’ mythology had been abandoned had me more than a little leery about the film’s prospects. Well, when your bar is set low, it’s a lot easier for a movie to clear it, and thus I actually did find myself won over by some of this film’s charms.

That’s not to say I’m here to tell you this is a perfect movie – not by any stretch of the imagination. But then, that’s not really a surprise. Like I said, Underworld has always been a series I have enjoyed in spite of itself. For me, the admittedly glaring story problems and often too-serious tone have usually been trumped by the action, cool visuals and the undeniable thrill of seeing world-class actors like Bill Nighy, Michael Sheen and Derek Jacobi gleefully ham it up in a glorified B-movie monster mash. I was also appreciative of the mythology the series created for itself, finding it an interesting universe with even more potential than the movies often delivered on. But I have always recognized the films’ flaws – and, here again, there are definitely a bunch of them.

The biggest issue, for me, is the feeling that this should really be Underworld 5 instead of Underworld 4. Cluing humanity in on the war is a huge decision. The whole reason these things were called Underworld was because this war was supposed to be raging beneath our very noses, with humanity none the wiser. Now, that’s all gone. Let’s consider that – don’t you think discovering the existence of actual monsters would be the biggest thing to ever happen to mankind? Of course it would. Now look at it from the side of the vampires and lycans. After centuries of keeping their existence secret and battling each other, suddenly everything changes and they find themselves nearly wiped off the face of the planet. With all this in mind, doesn’t “the Purge” sound like enough material to justify an entire movie of its own? To reduce it to little more than a quick prelude montage is a baffling creative decision, and one the film struggles to overcome throughout its running time. As much fun as this one might be, I couldn’t help but feel cheated that I was denied that entire chapter.

Not expanding on the Purge has near-crippling story ramifications, as well. One frustrating thing about the previous films has always been a lack of info on just how connected to human events these two races might have been. All the vampires and lycans we saw were only interested in each other and the war. It was never clear if they should really be considered a threat to humanity; we rarely saw them preying on people. That sort of information could have gone a long way towards explaining how I should feel about the Purge, and whether it was justified or not. During the Purge montage, there’s some footage of soldiers killing vampires and lycans who appear to be living nice, normal lives as productive citizens, but this is the first time we’ve ever been shown anything like that, and it barely registers. Not having a handle on this gives Awakening a weird tonal issue – you can sort of forgive Selene for slaughtering the Antigen guards who try to stop her escape (in much the same way you try not to think of the private lives of the henchmen James Bond always kills), but later in the film when she vows vampires will “reclaim” this world, I wasn’t sure if I should consider it a heroic statement or rather a threat against my very race (though there’s a part of me that would like to believe this was an intentional decision – meant to cast Underworld as a subversive series where we are tricked into rooting for our own destruction – the more rational part of me says there’s no way the producers are that clever).

Another problem is the film’s brisk running time. Well, actually, this one could be considered a plus and a minus – on one hand, I can appreciate the no-nonsense, let’s-get-right-to-business attitude of this movie, especially coming from a series that has in the past been occasionally bogged down by laborious exposition and leaden pacing. So there’s something to be said for this one, which races right along and wisely keeps the majority of its time focused on the action, its best element. But, still, story and characters do suffer, especially the new ones. Stephen Rea and Charles Dance are this film’s answer to the all-important “European actors who are really too good for this but apparently just want to have fun” factor that has become so important to the franchise, but neither are really given enough interesting stuff to do. The character most negatively affected by the short running-time, though, is Detective Sebastian (Michael Ealy), a human cop that becomes Selene’s ally in the last act. I suppose this is the film’s answer to my earlier concerns about casting all humans as bad-guys, but the problem is Sebastian just isn’t in the movie enough during the first half for me to care all that much about him when he does join Selene. They give him one brief moment where he explains his back-story, and then it’s off to the races and suddenly he’s a new main character that I’m supposed to be invested in. It just doesn’t work.

My final big complaint is a technical one – for a series that has always prided itself on a healthy mix of practical and digital effects, this entry takes a depressing turn towards almost entire CGI immersion. Sure, the practical werewolves are still there, but they’ve been shoved way to the side in favor of fully digital monsters. This is an even bigger problem given that the film’s CGI is pretty hit and miss.

But, OK, I said I liked a lot of this, and that’s true, too. The fact is, on a purely visceral level this film definitely works as a fun action movie, and if that’s mainly what you’re in the mood for, you’ll probably enjoy yourself. Whereas the short running time sacrifices some character development, it does cast out some of the more ponderous and overwhelming focus on the series’ mythology that I have seen many complain about. Awakening is a clear conscious attempt to reduce Underworld to its base elements of coolness – Kate Beckinsale in tight leather, and kick-ass and unabashedly violent action scenes (like Evolution before it, Awakening is an unapologetic gore-fest, something that earns it another big plus from me, especially in this era of neutered action films). It has stepped away from the faux-Shakespearean melodrama of the first film and the well-meaning but perhaps misplaced fantasy leanings of the second and third, and instead streamlined itself as pure B-movie mayhem. That’s certainly not gonna win it any love from the film-snobs out there, but the sort of movie fans who enjoy proud trash like Punisher: War Zone or Crank might just find Awakening to be the sort of Underworld film they’ve always been waiting for.

Having Beckinsale back is obviously a big check in the plus category, as well – and not just because she’s incredibly hot (though that’s certainly part of it – the trailer for film even exclaims “Kate Beckinsale, in 3D!,” clearly knowing where their bread is buttered). There’s always been a sense that Beckinsale finds this material somewhat beneath her, and at times it even slightly comes across onscreen. But she’s a professional, and for the most part slides comfortably back into the character (and outfit). Beckinsale has become amazingly adept at the franchise’s elaborate action staging, and I’m not even gonna try to deny the thrill of watching her slash and shoot her way through the chaos on hand here. While there have been a lot of complaints about her character’s lack of personality (a criticism I at least slightly agree with – I think she’d be a bit easier to root for if they’d allow her to crack a joke every now and then), she at least has the chops to believably pull off that cold, bad-ass personality. And there are even some moments where Selene’s lack of emotion or empathy works in the film’s benefit – for instance, one of my favorite moments occurs when Selene desires to learn more of Eve’s identity. Rather than just, oh, asking the girl about it, she roughly and without warning grabs Eve’s arm and bites into it, so as to gain her “blood memories.” That she does so without any sort of concern or awareness of how frightening that must seem to a little girl is a neat little character quirk, and speaks to how much Selene has been denied a life where she could actually experience and enjoy honest human emotions.

All in all, Underworld: Awakening is a slight but entertaining enough use of 90 minutes for action junkies, B-movie aficionados or leather fetishists. It should appeal primarily to the Underworld fans that have enjoyed the series more for its action and unrepentant corniness than for its silly love-story trappings. I know there will be many who will once again harshly attack the film for its weak characters and underachieving storytelling, but holy hell, it’s a goofy series about a hot vampire chick fighting werewolves, and this is the fourth entry. The only real crime it could commit would be lapsing into boredom – thankfully, the accelerated pace and abundance of excitingly-staged and well-done action scenes prevents that. It’s by no means the best movie I’ll see this year (or at least I certainly hope not), but there’s nothing wrong with a little escapist fun from time to time, and on that level Awakening delivers the goods more often than not.

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