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‘Underworld: Blood Wars’ bleeds out

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Franchise’s fifth installment a murky, incoherent mess 

There are certain film franchises out there that most people assume to be defunct right up until a new installment is released. These series don’t have the rapid-fire turnaround of the more tentpole offerings, so they tend to fade from the pop culture consciousness. Then, another film pops up – often leading us to ask questions like “Why are they even still making these?”

This brings us to “Underworld: Blood Wars,” the fifth installment of the Kate Beckinsale-starring series that kicked off back in 2003. It continues the story of Beckinsale’s Selene, an elite vampire warrior who remains inextricably mired in the middle of a centuries-old battle for supremacy between vampires and werewolves (known as Lycans here because why the hell not?) and proves consistently unable to avoid situations where she kills just about everybody.

(Note: this is actually the first one of these films I’ve seen, though I’m aware of the franchise. I think I’ve seen snippets of a couple of the previous offerings, though I can’t say that with any certainty. Happily, this movie – much like others of its slow-growing franchise ilk – kicks off with a brief montage that gets you up to speed on what’s going on. It’s sort of an “Underworld” CliffsNotes; in truth, it was quite helpful.)

This time around, Selene is being hunted by factions from both sides of the war. Her only ally is David (Theo James, “Allegiant”), a fellow vampire who happens to be the son of vampire lord Thomas (Charles Dance, “Ghostbusters”). Basically, everyone wants her dead – only not before she tells them the location of her daughter, who is a hybrid and whose blood holds the key to definitive victory in the ongoing clash.

She’s reluctantly brought back into the vampire fold by council member Semira (Lara Pulver, TV’s “Da Vinci’s Demons”) in an effort to thwart the latest efforts by the Lycans, now led by a powerful and mysterious newcomer named Marius (Tobias Menzies, TV’s “Outlander”) who seeks Selene’s daughter in order to achieve unstoppable power.

Or something. Honestly, none of this makes a ton of sense.

Anyway, Selene is soon back in the middle of a situation that she doesn’t really understand and quickly discovers that she can’t really trust anybody. And throughout, there’s a lot of hacky world-building mumbo-jumbo and some nutty fight scenes that are equal parts gruesome and ridiculous.

I find it staggering that this series has somehow spawned five actual wide-release films. What narrative there may have been has been almost entirely supplanted by slapdash plots, incoherent dialogue and gratuitous violence. The effects work is almost as laughable as the performances. This is the sort of movie that would seem to have no real reason to exist, and yet it does – and there’s reportedly yet another one in development. Sorry … “development.”

Kate Beckinsale wears this role – such as it is – with ease. She’s clearly comfortable with what these films are; so comfortable that she’s pretty much on cruise control. There’s a minimum of effort invested in any of it, a level of detachment that only enhances the general (and mostly unintentional) campiness of the proceedings. James is fine, though he’s throwing off an “I’m too good for this” vibe that is a bit off-putting. The rest of the supporting players do some old-school scenery chewing – Dance in particular manages to convey the ridiculousness AND treat it all with over-the-top deadly seriousness.

The rest is a bunch of folks looking like either Hot Topic mannequins (vampires) or hipster transients (werewolves) and getting shot/stabbed/exploded/whatnot. And do they ever – the entire film is a deluge of video game-level special effects as vampires and werewolves burst into flames and get sliced in half and generally perish in ways that combine extremity and poor execution to create moments that are outright laughable.

“Underworld: Blood Wars” is a symptom of 21st century Hollywood, a not-good extension of a not-good franchise that nevertheless soldiers on, thanks to inertial loyalty and a lack of subtlety that allows for easy translation for foreign markets. It’s a bad movie, but unfortunately, bad movies can be big business too.

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