When studio heads think one of their films can be marketed to audiences without the taint of early reviews, they don’t show the movie to critics ahead of time. We get the message anyway: the picture usually sucks swamp water. So Underworld Awakening, fourth in the franchise that began in 2003 and chronicles the enduring enmity of vampires and Lycans (werewolves), tiptoed into its Thursday midnight showings wreathed in the mild stench of its sponsors’ shame.
A modest surprise: Of all the movies whose makers designate them as crap by not screening them in advance for critics, forcing me to go to a multiplex in vampire hours and write a review in a sour overnight stupor, Underworld Awakening is one of the best.
Kate Beckinsale, after being excused from the third-episode prequel Rise of the Lycans, fronts the series again as Selene the vampire goddess. The fine, fresh airs the young Kate exuded two decades ago, when Kenneth Branagh plucked the teenager from the Oxford University Dramatic Society to appear in his film of Much Ado About Nothing, have cooled into a mistral of chic, tough womanhood. At 38, Beckinsale makes Selene a vampire to die for, especially if you’re a Lycan. She sports crystal-blue eyes, sleek longcoats from the Woo-Tarantino couture shop and stringy hair that swirls in so many directions, independent of its wearer, that it seems to have gone to its own acting class. Next it’ll want to direct.
(MORE: Corliss’s review of Underworld: Rise of the Lycans)
A member of the vampire subspecies known as Death Dealers (but in a nice way), Selene possesses certain useful skills. She can outfight man, wolf or bat-man; can leap from tall buildings at a single bound, and land without her body collapsing like a closed accordion; can dodge a fusillade of artillery fired by klutzy cops. Another peace officer shoots her point-blank in the forehead, but it’s the merest flesh wound; the bullet ejects itself, like a watermelon seed her brain spat out, as Selene reverts to type and snacks on the unlucky assailant. Later, when she uses her switchblade to start a car, a guy in the audience shouted, “Marry me!”
In the screenplay credited to six writers (including Len Wiseman, director of the first Underworld, and Beckinsale’s husband), humans have finally taken notice of the vampires and Lycans living in their midst and resolved to eradicate them. Years after her last appearance, Selene has been cryogenically frozen, as “Subject One,” in a lab run by evil scientist Jacob Lane (Stephen Rea, vacationing from Anglo-indie fare and apparently not enjoying the trip). “Subject Two” is Eve (India Eisley, the daughter of long-ago Zeffirelli Juliet Olivia Hussey, and Shailene Woodley’s kid sister on the ABC Family series The Secret Life of an American Teenager), whom Selene springs from her ice casket and brings to the vampires’ sub-subway lair.
The presence of these two intruding females annoys the cautious head of the clan, Thomas (Charles Dance, doing an imperious impersonation of a Brit Mitt Romney), but Selene wins him over with some preternatural CPR when his hunky son David (Theo James) is slaughtered by the more virulent strain of Lycans that Dr. Lake has been breeding in his lab. Cutting open the dead David’s stomach, she thrusts her hand into his chest cavity—we get an interior point-of-view shot—and vigorously massages his heart back to life.
Not quite in the class of the first film, Underworld 4 is still the most enlightened girl-power film of the week, nosing out Gina Carano’s Haywire by the length of Pinocchio’s proboscis. (It wouldn’t be a stretch to call the Underworld movies a dandier vampire-werewolf franchise than The Twilight Saga.) The Swedish director duo of Måns Mårling and Björn Stein, who go by their surnames only and previously helmed the Julianne Moore thriller Shelter, attack the project in patented Euroflash style: shades of silver swathing the actors, cunning integration of live-action and CGI stunt work and nearly everyone but Beckinsale prone to pouting. To give viewers some bang for the four-buck 3-D surcharge, Mårling and Stein toss virtual glass and spurting blood the audience’s way every few minutes.
(MORE: See Corliss on the girl-power movie Haywire)
The movie’s climax, in the basement garage of Dr. Lake’s lab, features four separate fights, each pitting a good guy or gal against a steroidal Lycan villain. As cleverly choreographed as this tag-team octet is, it doesn’t stick in the gut like a single earlier shot: the sight of a body, defenestrated from a great height, crashing on the top of a car. The shot, a quote from the Hong Kong cop drama Infernal Affairs (which was remade, but not equaled, as The Departed), manages its own jolting impact.
(MORE: See Corliss’s review of Infernal Affairs)
That the discussion has turned to a few seconds of body-smashing, car-crushing stunt work should indicate that Underworld Awakening is not exactly the classic play Spring Awakening, or even the rock musical made from it a few years ago. The film has nothing on its mind except diverting people who want to get out of the house after midnight. But it does suggest a distinction in two kinds of action movies: the critics’ fave Haywire, in which Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh pays little heed to narrative flow or coherence, and this Underworld, with its slick corporate craftsmanship. The first picture is smart-stupid, the second stupid-smart. And I’ll take the idiot-savant pleasures of a vampire movie any day.