'Underworld Awakening'

The latest chapter of the popular vamp franchise extends the mythos and sustains the excitement of its predecessors.

Back in black and cutting no slack, Kate Beckinsale returns as Selene, the kickass vampire warrioress who always shoots first and never bothers to ask questions afterward, in “Underworld Awakening,” the fourth entry in the enduringly popular action-horror franchise launched by Len Wiseman’s “Underworld” back in 2003. Although the directorial chores have been turned over to Swedish co-helmers Mans Marlind and Bjorn Stein (billed jointly as Marlind & Stein), this latest episode extends the mythos and sustains the excitement of its predecessors with sufficient fealty to ensure another killing at the box office and a long afterlife on homevid.

After being conspicuously absent (except for a fleeting cameo) from “Underworld: Rise of the Lycans” (2009), a swashbuckling prequel to “Underworld” and “Underworld: Evolution” (2006), Beckinsale slips back into the latex suit to resume Selene’s crusade as Death Dealer extraordinaire in the secret, centuries-long battle between vampires and werewolves (aka Lycans).

The big difference here is that humankind finally has caught on to the fact that, well, vampires and Lycans have been battling each other for centuries, and homo sapiens have frequently sustained collateral damage. “Awakening” kicks off with a briskly effective sequence that details the decimation of bloodsuckers and shape-shifters with ruthlessly efficient purges, leaving both species near the point of extinction — and Selene herself captured and cryogenically frozen by Antigen, a biotech firm developing a vaccine against viruses thought responsible for monster making.

More than a decade later, Selene reawakens from her enforced slumber in an Antigen lab. Fortunately, her captors have conveniently stowed her iconic outfit within easy reach — a wink-wink touch sure to please series devotees — so she’s able to suit up before cutting a bloody swath through hopelessly outmatched security guards and making her escape.

Outside in the brave new post-purge world, Selene finds once-powerful vampire potentates such as the autocratic Thomas (Charles Dance) have literally gone underground with their covens, and the few remains Lycans seem little more than malnourished nuisances who travel in dwindling packs.

The good news: Selena discovers that, while she was sleeping, she gave birth to Eve (India Eisley), a feral vampire-werewolf hybrid fathered by the presumed-dead Michael (a hybrid played in the first two pics by Scott Speedman). The bad news: Eve is actively pursued by powerful Antigen chief Dr. Jacob Lane (Stephen Rea), who plans to use the girl as a very unwilling DNA donor.

Once again, Beckinsale brings an impressive physicality and subzero cool to her portrayal of Selene, only occasionally revealing a flash of vulnerability when the Death Dealer isn’t blasting fierce Lycans or dispatching inconvenient humans. It can be argued that what she offers is more presence than performance, but that doubtless will suffice to inflame genre fanboys of all ages.

Working from a script by series co-producer Wiseman and a small army of collaborators, the helmers sustain a suitably rapid-fire pace — without extended closing credits, pic would clock in at under 80 minutes — while noticeably elevating the level of graphic slice-and-dice, run-and-gun mayhem. The action setpieces — including acrobatically choreographed faceoffs, and a basement-set battle royale pitting Selene against a humongous uber-werewolf — are neatly balanced mash-ups of slo-mo posturing and breakneck thrills. And lenser Scott Kevan takes pains to give the Vancouver-lensed pic the distinctively icy blue-gray look that is this franchise’s trademark.

Supporting perfs — including those by Michael Ealy as a sympathetic cop and Theo James as a hunky vampire eager to kick Lycan butt — are everything they need be, and the overall tech package indicates that, this time out, producers have raised the budget a few notches (though the use of 3D doesn’t add much). Their investment should pay off handsomely.

Underworld Awakening

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Screen Gems and Lakeshore Entertainment presentation of a Lakeshore Entertainment production in association with Sketch Films. Produced by Tom Rosenberg, Gary Lucchesi, Len Wiseman, Richard Wright. Executive producers, David Kern, James McQuaide, David Coatsworth, Eric Reid, Skip Williamson, Henry Winterstern. Directed by Marlind & Stein. Screenplay, Len Wiseman, John Hlavin, J. Michael Straczynski, Allison Burnett; story, Wiseman, Hlavin, based on characters created by Ken Grevioux, Wiseman, Danny McBride.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, 3D), Scott Kevan; editor, Jeff McEvoy; music, Paul Haslinger; production designer, Claude Pare; art directors, Gary Myers, Martina Javorova; set designers, Douglas Higgins, Jay Mitchell, Megan Poss, David Clarke; set decorator, Shane Vieau; costume designer, Monique Prudhomme; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS), Chris Duesterdiek; re-recording mixers, Michael Babcock, Tim Leblanc; special effects coordinator, Joel Whist; prosthetics and creature FX, Mastersfx; assistant director, Paul Barry; second unit director, stunt coordinator, Brad Martin; casting, Tricia Wood, Deborah Aquila. Reviewed at AMC Studio 30, Houston, Jan. 19, 2012. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 89 MIN.

With

Selene - Kate Beckinsale
Dr. Jacob Lane - Stephen Rea
Detective Sebastian - Michael Ealy
David - Theo James
Eve - India Eisley
Lida - Sandrine Holt
Thomas - Charles Dance

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