The lavish but loquacious vampire versus werewolf extravaganza in Gothic horror, “Underworld: Blood Wars” (*** OUT OF ****), doesn’t deliver as many bold, spectacular stunts either genuine or CGI as the previous four films in this supernatural series. If you’re counting, “Underworld: Blood Wars” is number five in this British-produced series dating back to 2003 with the original “Underworld.” One thing that can be said about this imaginative franchise is its fan-friendly approach. Like “Underworld: Awakening,” “Underworld: Blood Wars” recaps all the skullduggery at the outset lest our memories have faded since the last clash between the vampires and werewolves. “Blood Wars” offers a similar prologue that seems identical aside from a bit tacked on at the end. Former television director Anna Foerster’s first film coughs up loads of exposition. This creates obvious problems because she pauses the action for the leading characters to exchange dialogue galore. You know the characters aren’t chatting among themselves as much as they are uttering information for our eavesdropping ears. “Last Witch Hunter” scenarist Cory Goodman and “Machete Kills” writer Kyle Ward give feuding factions a great deal to say. American action movies don’t present half as much verbiage as Goodman and Ward have in “Underworld: Blood Wars.” Indeed, a score card wouldn’t be out of the question to keep up with everything clear that they cover. The boisterous, R-rated, battle sequences that ensue appear visually lackluster. Instead of svelte Kate Beckinsale cavorting nimbly about in a black cat-suit with pistols blazing and Lycans dying, armies of vampires and werewolves equipped with body armor blast away at each other with assault weapons. These cacophonous skirmishes are comparably bland and would seem more appropriate in a “G.I. Joe” actioneer. At its best, the “Underworld” franchise resembles a swashbuckling spectacle rather than a military marching campaign. Despite the plethora of dialogue and monotonous maneuvers, “Underworld: Blood Wars” boasts not only revelations about characters new and old but also narrative surprises and enhanced Lycan weaponry.
The opening recap brings us up-to-date on the “Underworld” franchise, specifically the complicated relationship between our 1000-year-old heroine Selene and her hybrid daughter Eve (India Eisley) who is virtually never seen unlike her introduction in the the earlier installment “Underworld: Awakening” where she ripped apart Lycans. Nevertheless, heroes and villains alike talk about the offspring of Selene and Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman) constantly talk about or perform tasks related to Selene’s daughter. Anybody who hasn’t seen the earlier “Underworld” outings should know that after introducing the primary characters and their antagonists in the first two movies, the third film served as a prequel, with Rhona Mitra as Viktor’s daughter Sonja instead of Kate Beckinsale as the Lycan killing assassin Selene. “Underworld: Rise of the Lycans” (2009) was released after “Underworld” (2003) and “Underworld: Evolution” (2006). The third film provided the origins of events and characters that occurred in the two earlier epics. The vampires and Lycans in the “Underworld” franchise do not adhere entirely to the venerable Universal Studios prototypes of the “Dracula” and “Wolf Man” franchises. The Universal monsters owed their origins to supernatural intervention, while a virus spawned the “Underworld” vampires and Lycans. This explains why Selene as a vampire cannot shape-shift into the bodies either a bat or a wolf like Count Dracula. This also justifies scenes where vampires show up as reflections in mirrors. Mind you, prolonged exposure to the sun is still fatal to the vampires as much as the ultra-violent bullets that the Lycans load into their assault weapons. Anyway, with Michael gone missing, Selene isn’t as excited about being a vampire constantly eluding Lycans. Selene’s latest Lycan adversary, the aggressive but enigmatic Marius (Tobias Menzies of “Casino Royale”) isn’t as interesting as some of the aristocratic vampires in the surviving Eastern Coven. Marius wears an occupational sneer like a mask, but he lacks the intimidating stature of Selene’s earlier adversaries. Marius sends out men to capture Selene and extract from her Eve’s whereabouts. Even after he has Selene at his mercy, Marius suppresses his incendiary wrath because she has told him the truth. Simply enough, she doesn’t know where Eve has fled.
Meantime, David (Theo James of “Allegiant”) and his suspicious father Thomas (Charles Dance of HBO’s “Game of Thrones”) return. In “Underworld: Awakening,” David died, but Selene resurrected him. She inserted her bloody fist into his chest and massaged his heart back to life. These movies deserve credit for conjuring up some wholly outlandish escapades. This time father and son are allowed sanctuary in the impregnable Eastern Coven castle. An Eastern Coven leader, Cassius (James Faulkner of the “I, Claudius” television mini-series), brags that his vampire coven has stood fast against the despicable Lycans for fifteen centuries. Little does he realize that the Eastern Coven has its own quislings, and one of the worst serves alongside him on the elders’ council, Semira (Laura Pulver of “Edge of Tomorrow”), who conceals her treachery beneath a deceitful smile. She insists that Cassius and the council grant amnesty to the outcast Selene, now relentlessly pursued by vampires and Lycans both, and persuade her to tutor their latest generation of werewolf-killing, death-dealers so the Eastern Coven can repel future Lycan incursions.
Occasionally, “Underworld: Blood Wars” borders on convolution. The larger-than-life death scenes are memorable because our heroes and heroines vanquish the villains with style to spare. At one point, after triggering hundreds of bullets into each other, Marius and David howl in fury, and all the slugs they have riddled themselves with catapult from their wounds. Forester stages this encounter is kinetic gusto. Later, the scheming Semira wields a sword against David who has more than enough reason to skewer this wicked wench. Apart from the new villains, the albino Nordic Clan with their striking white coiffures and fascinating cultural rituals, one involving a mysterious kind of waterborne mummification, are introduced in the third quarter. “Underworld: Blood Wars” compensates for its dreary fireworks and surplus of dialogue with exemplary death scenes and compelling revelations.