Kate Beckinsale stars in the fourth film in the long-running franchise. (Joe Lederer / Sony Pictures )
"Underworld: Awakening" begins with a tidy, three-minute wrap of the series' first two movies (the third, a 2009 prequel minus star Kate Beckinsale doesn't figure into the equation) before revealing the current grim state of affairs for its clashing vampires and werewolves.
Humans, at least those oblivious to the charms of the "Twilight" movies, have decided to stop killing each other and focus on eradicating creatures possessing fangs. Our vampire antiheroine Selene (Beckinsale) finds herself cryogenically frozen in a laboratory before someone (or something) mysteriously breaks the glass, facilitating her reemergence. Conveniently, her captors have left her spandex suit and knee-high black boots right next to her pod, though you'd think wiggling into that get-up after a dozen years of slumber would require a dexterity beyond even her extraordinary skills.
And make no mistake, those superhuman skills receive a workout in "Underworld: Awakening," a brisk creature-feature that ditches the series' dreary mythology in favor of a more direct, action-oriented approach. The "Underworld" movies could never exactly be called "fun," but Swedish directing duo Mans Marlind and Bjorn Stein manage to bring a bit of visual flair to the bloodletting along with another quality previously in short supply — competence.
That either makes "Awakening" the best movie in the burgeoning "Underworld" franchise or the worst, depending, I suppose, on how deeply you value the series' previous strained attempts at myth-making. Here, the four credited screenwriters have created a workable (though easily solved) mystery surrounding the 12-year-old girl (India Eisley, Shailene Woodley's little sister on the ABC Family series "The Secret Life of an American Teenager") who was frozen along with Selene, while wasting little time setting up a scenario that pits vampires against steroid-pumped werewolves (or Lycans, if you must) in numerous CGI-aided scenarios.
Beckinsale, playing Selene as a memory-swiped Jason Bourne, finally manages to perfect the monotone delivery she'd been honing for the series' first two entries. As if by explanation, she tells the girl at one point, "My heart's not cold. It's broken." At least she has all that spandex and leather to keep her warm.
One of the outright pleasures of the "Underworld" movies has always been watching fine British thespians — Michael Sheen, Bill Nighy, Derek Jacobi — chew scenery along with various other body parts. "Awakening" gives us two new additions: Stephen Rea playing a mad scientist with all the relish of a man about to go into a sensory deprivation tank and, on the other side of the spectrum, a campy Charles Dance as the pragmatic leader of one of the last remaining vampire covens.
As to whether either will be around for the fifth film that this movie's finale dutifully sets up, we can't say. But that's OK. Now that the "Harry Potter" movie franchise has come to a close, there are plenty of notable English actors available. Hopefully they can keep the costumes along with the paychecks.