Action films are often judged based on their third acts. We’ve come to expect blood, precision and grandiosity, and most are smart enough to deliver. The problem with the bad ones, more often than not, is that they don’t do quite enough to keep us invested before the proverbial castles are stormed. Underworld: Awakening isn’t a great movie by any measure. Its 3D is practically non-existent for long stretches, and most of its characters behave according to motivations shoehorned in quickly and without sincerity. But somehow, it recovers just enough from these lulls to offer well shot graphics and choreographed action that bridge the way to a successful, fast-paced final act.
That climax, coupled with an interesting premise and a killer car chase scene, are enough to make Underworld: Awakening watchable, but because of one over-arching problem, I still can’t help wondering what-if. Arguably the best thing about the series prior to this movie has been its willingness to play both sides of the fence. Nothing was quite as it seemed, and no one single side was in the right. Like most wars, the Vampire/ Lycan feud was an escalating mess caused by two sides with fundamentally different wants and needs. The main issue with Underworld: Awakening is that it doesn’t spend enough time muddying the motivations of the opposition, which is utterly bizarre considering the film’s very plot adds two huge new wrinkles to the saga.
Like the previous installments, Underworld: Awakening hinges upon a war, but this time it’s one that supposedly ended. The humans discovered the existence of Vampires and Lycans, uniting the enemies, if only in suffering. This great purge drove the survivors underground and led to Selene (Kate Beckinsale) and Michael’s (Scott Speedman) capture. She's placed in a facility and frozen to be examined, at least until she suddenly wakes up. Panicked and frantic, our protagonist flees from the humans and into the night intent on reuniting with her beloved. Instead, she finds a twelve year-old girl (India Eisley) and a hell of a story. Apparently, it’s been more than a decade since Selene was captured, and the child standing in front of her, the one that once grew in her womb, desperately needs her help. The Lycans won’t stop until she’s captured, and no one protects quite like a pissed-off, recently awoken maternal killing machine.
This is the rather simple and somewhat engaging premise Underworld: Awakening operates off of. An incredibly powerful hybrid daughter is now in play, as well as a pissed off human race with an armory of high tech Vampire and Lycan killing devices. Unfortunately, the latter is barely touched on at all, save one or two scenes in which the ever-present fear is made clear, and the former is mostly used as a way to firmly pit Selene against the Lycans. There’s no question of right and wrong, only a clear dividing line between good and bad. It’s a black and white polarization that’s straightforward enough to be disappointing.
That wasted opportunity probably should be enough to sink the film, but thanks to its savage body count and entertaining mother-daughter melodrama, it kind of still works. Good action movies are always rife with graphic slayings and at least one car chase, and Underworld: Awakening has a lot of strange deaths and one hell of a high speed pursuit. These moments of disgusting, videogame-like fun keep the action moving for the first hour until Selene descends upon the facility where she was once housed to impart her brand of vengeance. This break-neck, breaking and entering finale is equal parts macabre and awesome. By the end, the walls are dyed red with pints of blood, and all the film’s shortcomings no longer seem so dubious.
With some added depth, perhaps an extra twenty minutes to explore the other side and better 3D, Underworld: Awakening could have been head and shoulders better than the other entries in the series. Instead, it’s just marginally better, which to fans and action enthusiasts will probably be as fulfilling as watching a few Lycan throats get ripped out, MacGruber style.