Underworld: Blood Wars (2016)

2017 #72
Anna Foerster | 91 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Underworld: Blood Wars

Kate Beckinsale is back in skintight leather for……

I’m sorry, my mind wandered off then. As I was saying: Kate Beckinsale is back in… skintight leather……

Sorry, happened again. As I was saying: Kate Beckinsale is back in… her role as a werewolf-killing vampire for the fifth entry in the Underworld series, which seems to be as undying as its star creatures.

Picking up a little while after the last one left off, the war between vampires and Lycans (aka werewolves) is now back in full swing, and both sides are hunting Selene (Beckinsale). Her own kind want her for previous crimes (see: the first two films), while the Lycans are after her daughter (see: the last film) to give them an advantage in the war. Fearing for their safety, the vampires invite Selene back into the fold to train a new generation of combatants, but there are sneakier plans afoot…

Kate Beckinsale in leather. Nuff said.

The first Underworld marked out somewhat-new territory when it hit screens in 2003 by taking fantasy/horror elements like vampire covens and werewolves and placing them in a modern urban environment, fighting more with guns than swords and teeth. It certainly wasn’t wholly original — Blade had already done a similar concept and visually it owed a lot to The Matrix — but it was fresh enough. Since then the series has increasingly strayed away from that: the second film brought more traditional-style Eastern European countryside, the third was a medieval prequel, and the fourth was… kind of nothing-y, really.

Now, they seem to have made something of an effort to get back to the ‘world’ of the first film, with extravagant vampire covens and underground Lycan forces, while also growing the series’ mythology by introducing us to new areas of vampiredom, primarily a Nordic coven. This move also brings with it a degree of politicking among the vampires, which is kind of what I imagine a millennia-old secret society would be like. I mean, don’t expect House of Cards — it’s done at the level of the action B-movie this series is — but it’s kinda fun. To achieve this it’s had to ignore an awful lot of the last film — not entirely, by any means, as it’s quite heavily based in some leftover plot points — but other parts have been completely glossed over. This lax attitude to continuity could be irritating, but a counterargument might go that isn’t it better to ditch stuff that isn’t really working in favour of stuff that’s more entertaining?

Vampire politics

Part of the entertainment comes from characters talking rather than just fighting, and we’re treated to some magnificently cheesy, overworked dialogue. Some of these scenes are edited within an inch of their life, lines almost tripping over each other as they’re rushed on to the screen. By rights that should be a problem, yet in something as fabulously trashy as Underworld it feels more expedient — they’re getting on with it, rather than being ponderous about the mythology, like much fantasy is wont to do. I kinda like it for that. Alternatively, there’s one bit where the main characters seem to express themselves in a quick-cut series of heavy breaths and grunts. It’s either terrible or genius, or possibly both.

This tone is supported by some superbly hammy acting from a cast filled with faces from British TV. Sherlock’s Irene Adler, Lara Pulver, seems to be having a whale of a time as the scheming head of a vampire coven, while giving Miss Beckinsale a run for her money in the kinky outfit department. She’s accompanied by Merlin’s Arthur, Bradley James, pouting around as her frequently-insulted boy toy. Tobias Menzies (take your pick of what you consider him best-known for) does his best as the Lycan’s cunning new leader, who’s most threatening in his CGI-powered transformed state. And Charles Dance is back, exuding pure class as always, completely convincing you that he believes in all the high-fantasy drivel he has to spout.

Irene and Arthur

Similarly, we all know Kate Beckinsale is better than this — and if you’d forgotten, Love & Friendship should’ve reasserted it. Even here she’s called on to be more than just a shapely pair of buttocks, getting to inject Selene with some rare emotion on several occasions. She also once again kicks ass left, right, and centre. The film’s action on the whole is fairly entertaining. There’s little impressive choreography or particularly original combat concepts, but it passes muster. Even Charles Dance gets to do some swashbuckling (as he terms it in the making-of), which is only brief but also as awesome as it sounds. Another part amusingly sees two bulletproof adversaries walk slowly towards one another while emptying their guns into each other. It’s, again, simultaneously close to being both terrible and genius.

Despite being renowned as a visually gloomy series, I thought it looked pretty nice in 3D — better than Awakening did, at any rate. Awakening was genuinely shot in 3D, whereas (based on what I could see in behind-the-scenes footage from the special features) Blood Wars appears to have been post-converted. It shows how far that technology has come that even a modestly budgeted movie like this (just $35 million) can afford post-conversion that often looks very good indeed.

The only major disappointment I had with the film was that, thanks to it being in a rush every time it had some plot to get through, parts of it don’t quite make sense. The ending, in particular, where a voiceover monologue mentions a load of stuff we haven’t just seen happen and doesn’t quite flow. Surely they could’ve afforded an extra two minutes to connect the dots? Apparently the ending was designed to both brings things full circle and, perhaps, leave it open for a sixth instalment. Well, I would say it shortchanges the wrapping-up bit — this could be a place to conclude the series, but by not giving that sufficient weight (i.e. by rushing it), it implies a kind of “tune in next time”-ness.

Kate Beckinsale. Leather. Nuff. Said.

That aside, I actually massively enjoyed Blood Wars; much more than the negative reception led me to expect. Of course, the Underworld films are a fan-only experience at this point — not because of diminishing quality, as most reviews would cite, but because of how much the story is based in events from three of the previous four films. If you’ve watched any of those previous movies and not enjoyed them, it’s not worth catching up for this — it’s fundamentally “more of the same”, just done better than it’s been since the first movie.

These days franchises can revive themselves for new viewers later in their runs — Fast Five being the best Fast & Furious movie is a case in point — but Blood Wars isn’t a Fast Five. However, as someone who would, at this point, I guess, count myself as a fan of the series, Blood Wars delivered.

4 out of 5

Underworld: Blood Wars is released on DVD and Blu-ray (in regular, 3D, and UHD flavours) in the UK today.

Spooks: The Greater Good (2015)

aka MI-5

2015 #139
Bharat Nalluri | 104 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

The BBC’s long-running spy thriller series Spooks (aka MI-5 in the US) came to a close a few years ago, and instantly sparked rumours of a big-screen continuation. Unlike most such rumours, that one actually came to fruition: this result hit UK cinemas in the summer, and is now making its way across the pond — under that Mission: Impossible-esque title, of course.

The TV series is probably best remembered for the way it regularly killed off its leading characters in shocking fashion, thanks to the most infamous of them all: the “deep fat fryer incident” from the second-ever episode. It was about a lot more than that, though. Beginning in 2002 in the wake of 9/11, a series about the security service defending the country from terrorism couldn’t avoid being ultra-relevant, and it ran for a decade during which such issues never ceased to be pertinent (and haven’t since). That other famous British spy institution, James Bond, was at the tail-end of the Brosnan era when Spooks began, and the lower-key TV series was — like Tinker Tailor and others before it — pitched as a “real world” version of what the security services got up to. Storylines were “ripped from the headlines”, often with eerie prescience: after one early episode, the series’ lack of end credits led some viewers to believe the real BBC News bulletin that followed was still part of the drama.

Early seasons focused at least as much on things like the mundanity of spycraft, or how one went about having a personal life while also being a sometimes-undercover agent, as they did on the exciting action of counterespionage — as evoked in the memorable tagline “MI5 not 9 to 5”, of course. As the years rolled on, things got increasingly outlandish and grandiose, just as almost every spy series that starts out “grounded” is wont to do. In season three, an entire episode was spent on the moral dilemma of whether it was acceptable to assassinate someone; a couple of years later, assassinations would just be a halfway-through-an-episode plot development. The one constant through all this was section chief Harry Pearce (Peter Firth), the M figure to a rotating roster of “James Bond”s, including Matthew “Ripper Street” Macfadyen and Rupert “Whitechapel” Penry-Jones, as well as other actors who didn’t go on to lead Jack the Ripper-derived crime series, like Richard “The Hobbit” Armitage.

Now, a couple of years since the TV series wrapped up its ten-year run, Spooks has attempted to make the leap to the big screen. Although they’ve roped in the fella who directed the first-ever episodes, the screenwriters are the final two seasons’ showrunners, so the movie follows on from where the series ended up rather than re-establishing itself in where it all began. What does that mean in practice? Sub-Bourne action in a film that often appears more like a well-budgeted TV movie than a proper feature film.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The story begins with Harry running an op that goes wrong, during which terrorist Adam Qasim (Elyes Gabel) is sprung from custody just before being handed over to the CIA. Cue international incident. Naturally the blame is pinned on Harry, who consequently throws himself off a bridge. Except no one buys that, so they drag in Will Holloway (Kit Harington), a disenchanted one-time protégé of Harry’s (i.e. the series’ latest “younger man who can do the running around”). He knows nothing about it (obviously), but they want him to track Harry down nonetheless. Turns out Harry suspects there’s a mole in MI5 (because it’s a spy thriller — there’s always a mole) and it might be one of the very people who brought Will in (who include David Harewood, Tim McInnerny, and Jennifer Ehle). Harry and Will must work together to, a) find the mole, and b) stop whatever atrocity Qasim has planned next.

In case it isn’t clear, you don’t need to have seen the TV series to follow the plot, which is standalone in every aspect that seriously matters (there are certainly nods to the show, especially to its final season, and one fan-pleasing cameo. More would’ve been nicer.) However, a familiarity might help manage your expectations: The Greater Good feels like a wider-screen, (slightly-)bigger-budgeted version of the show, for good or ill. “Good” because, well, it should really, otherwise why call it Spooks? “Ill” because anyone expecting an action-packed thriller to rival Bond, Bourne, or Mission: Impossible will come away disappointed.

The trailers attempt to promise some of that kind of action, but they’re a bit of a cheat: what adrenaline the film has is mostly released in tiny bursts, scattered throughout. That strategy is fine if you’ve got the money to make each little burst a solid sequence, but when the entirety of some sequences is “jumping through a window” or “climbing a wall to get into a flat”, well… Sure, it looks good in the trailer — it promises lots of action in different places at different times — but that’s also a promise the movie can’t fulfil. The Greater Good certainly isn’t just a low-rent action movie — it’s driven by its plot — but if they’d saved up the filmmaking time, effort, and expense afforded to those single-dose action moments and poured it all into one sequence (in addition to the two or three fully-realised action sequences that the film does have), it might’ve paid dividends.

So what of that plot? As mentioned, the exciting contemporaneousness of Spooks’ storylines went increasingly AWOL as the series wore on, trading real-world issues for ludicrous government conspiracies or revived Cold War rivalries. Unsurprisingly, given the writers involved, the movie continues in that latter tradition. That’s a shame, because Spooks’ ability to engage with real-world issues in a thriller context was one of its best elements. It’s not as if we’re lacking in spy-related storyline-fodder in the real world — something Edward Snowden-y or about radicalised nationals would’ve been a good starting point. (Based on his accent, I guess Qasim is supposed to be an American who was converted, but that facet of his character isn’t explored.) At least they try to sub in some thematic relevance, raising questions related to doing what’s right versus doing what’s expected. Sadly that dichotomy isn’t explored as fully as it could have been either, but it’s definitely a constant and repeated factor.

You might not believe it from this picky review but, fundamentally, I did enjoy the Spooks movie. It largely retains the feel of the TV series (albeit without the moderately-memorable theme music — honestly, it’s like someone forgot to compose anything for the title credits. What were they thinking?!), and if they manage to produce a sequel then I’ll be sure to see it; but in this outing I can’t help spotting ways I thought it could’ve been even better. Consequently, as a film in its own right it comes across as a Bourne wannabe. On the bright side, it’s still better than The Bourne Legacy.

3 out of 5

Spooks: The Greater Good MI-5 is available in the US through DirecTV from today, and in theaters and on demand from December 4th.