With the insipid Twilight phenomenon currently in full force, nothing could be more welcome than 2012's Underworld: Awakening; a film which abandons the metrosexual image of werewolves and vampires in favour of something more agreeably badass. Those seeking sophistication or nuanced storytelling should look elsewhere, though - this fourth Underworld flick is wall-to-wall vampires vs. werewolves action, jettisoning laborious exposition and forced romantic melodrama for a more stripped-down experience. The whole thing is exceedingly dumb, shallow and messy, but at least it's light on its feet, with kinetic pacing leaving little time for cheesy dialogue-laden respite in between the mayhem. Underworld fans are likely to be satisfied with what directors Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein have created here under the guidance of franchise co-creator Len Wiseman.
When humans discover that vampires and lycans (that is, werewolves) are living amongst them in a feuding state, a "purge" is ordered, and both species are hunted to the brink of extinction. Amid the genocide, vampire Selene (Beckinsale) looks to escape with her hybrid lover Michael, but government goons capture them, thwarting their plan. Twelve years later, Selene wakes up in a lab to a world where vampires and lycans live in exile. The unsuspecting warrior also discovers that she has a powerful hybrid daughter Eve (Eisley), who has been used for experimentation. Escaping captivity with her offspring, Selene goes on the run, seeking refuge while being hotly pursued.
Perhaps to avoid further Twilight comparisons, the filmmakers behind Underworld: Awakening stripped away the romantic angle, pretty much excluding the character of Michael and keeping corny melodrama to an absolute minimum. It's a welcome move, as it allows the franchise go in new directions and embrace a more simple, badass attitude. The original Underworld in particular was marred by frequent monotonous exposition and flashbacks, so Awakening gets rid of that stuff as well. While the opening five minutes or so are exclusively dedicated to exposition and montage, the film promptly takes off like a champion racehorse afterwards, concerning itself with countless action-oriented conflicts and rarely stopping to assess the situation. Selene's relationship with Eve could have resulted in clichéd histrionics and forced tear-jerking, but the filmmakers had other plans. Instead, there are just a few well-judged character building moments to construct a credible bond between mum and bub. Marvellous.
Underworld: Awakening is expectedly threadbare from a dramatic and narrative standpoint, but the picture's visual firepower is stunning. Retaining the franchise's penchant for no-holds-barred violence, directors Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein show tremendous enthusiasm for lathering on the R-rated details, keenly watching as Selene disembowels, decapitates and skewers her enemies in a spectacular fashion. While the loud gunfights are expectedly delightful, it's the fisticuffs that stand out the most here, with Selene even battling an enormous lycan enforcer. This is easily one of 2012's most satisfyingly violent movies so far, and it's destined to please action fans who've grown sick of sanitised PG-13 blockbusters. With a generous budget, Underworld: Awakening is an attractive picture to behold as well, with robust special effects that represent an improvement since the franchise's first entry. Cinematographer Scott Kevan also affords a degree of beauty to the film. Instead of a tedious routine of shaky-cam and rapid-fire editing, Kevan's framing lets us watch the battles and absorb all the gory details without getting a migraine, and the blue-tinged photography is enthralling indeed. Underworld: Awakening is available in 3-D, too. It was filmed with 3-D cameras at least, but the extra dimension fails to add anything worthwhile to the experience: it's just there. Sure, the gimmick is fun, but the flick is equally good in 2-D.
Kate Beckinsale took a six-year leave of absence from this franchise, but she slipped back into her role of Selene (and back into her skin-tight garb) to seamless effect. It's great to have her back, and she fulfilled her leading lady duties with confidence. Although there isn't much more to Beckinsale than surface pleasures (she's not the most nuanced performer in the world), the star is a perfect fit for this role: she's incredibly hot, and she looks awesome when cracking skulls and using dual firearms. The rest of the cast, meanwhile, is pretty standard-order. Bewilderingly, Scott Speedman sat this film out (c'mon, what could he be so busy with these days?). Instead, a body double awkwardly and silently stands in for Speedman, though said double is only glimpsed briefly.
The emphasis for Underworld: Awakening is more on bone-crunching action than anything else - the plot is not given much thought, nor is it cerebral. As a result, the film is definitely fun in the moment but it's ultimately forgettable and borderline inconsequential. Its story material is literally the equivalent of the opening act for a 120-minute feature film, and thus it seems to just be testing the box office waters, setting up a fifth movie and seeing if audiences still care about this series before going any further. So, no, Underworld: Awakening will not be remembered for long, but it retains a heroic sense of forward momentum, keeping this franchise fun and interesting. It nicely complements its predecessors, too. If you've been yearning for the return of the sexy, sleek Selene, it's doubtful you'll walk away disappointed.