There has historically been a one-to-one relationship in the Underworld films between Kate Beckinsale being onscreen and the films being even a little bit palatable to watch. In the fifth and very probably final entry in the series, Underworld: Blood Wars, we see less of Beckinsale than in any of the others besides the 2009 prequel Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, in which her character didn't even exist. I assume you can do the math.

Actually, it's not as dire as all that. Not only is Blood Wars better than Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, it's also better than the last film, way back in 2012, Underworld: Awakening. Note that this does not somehow mean that Blood Wars magically becomes good, merely that it resides smack dab in the middle of a franchise that has ranged from "bad" to "irredeemably awful". But also a franchise that appears to be over now, given how neatly it ties up every outstanding plot thread left hanging by the blithering Underworld: Awakening, or least how all the ones it didn't prefer to simply ignore. And not a moment too soon, to judge from Beckinsale's hugely detached performance, which is her worst turn yet in the role of leather-clad vampire warrior Selene. And I don't think it's an unkindness to Beckinsale to point out that her work as Selene has never been particularly great, or even more than proficient, asking only that she can look furiously concerned while she mouths the series' characteristically portentous dialogue or pointing a gun, and receiving not one ounce more from her than that.

The film helpfully starts with a recap of the previous events in the series: Selene is no longer a Death Dealer because both the Lycans and her own Coven are out to hunt her for her pure blood and her hybrid daughter Eve, conceived with Michael Corvin, a human of the pure Corvinus strain. Did I say "helpfully"? Of course I meant "fuck you right in your god-damn face, Underworld mythology". Really, though, it's easier to follow than it tries to be - for it tries to be confounding - as long as you remember that Selene is good and everybody else is at least potentially bad. Well, probably not David (Theo James), her one true ally thanks to having received some of her blood to save his life, which means they're both some kind of super-vampires that can withstand sunlight, a characteristic used near the end of the film in the solitary decent shot that director Anna Foerster and cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub ever whip up. Besides our outsider heroes, there are three factions to keep track of: the Lycans, werewolves who almost always maintain their human form, as Eurotrash clubbers, led by the new "super-Lycan" Marius (Tobias Menzies, apparently cast so that James wouldn't be the most indistinct member of the ensemble); the good vampires led by David's father Thomas (Charles Dance), Elder of a vampire coven in Eastern Europe, the last stronghold against the Lycan warriors; and the bad vampire Semira (Lara Pulver), secretly plotting to overthrow Thomas's reign. There's also a population of pacifist Nordic vampires, but they're basically occupy the same narrative space as the good vampires after Semira kills Thomas.

A whole lot of gobbledygook involving blood lines and how the absent Eve's blood can be used either as a superweapon or a unifying force clutters up the basic thrust of the thing, which is, as the Underworlds have always been, watching vampires and werewolves shoot guns at each other, in boringly-choreographed scenes so heavily processed towards steel blue that it would be entirely fair to describe the film as monochromatic. Foerster (a protégé of Roland Emmerich's) backs off on the gore, save for a spine-ripping held in reserve till the climax, but that's just about the biggest difference in how the numbing action scenes are presented. Oh, I take that back! This film uses swords more often than most of the others, which offers at least some slightly increased sense of Gothic charm than the Matrix rip-offs that were already tired when the first Underworld came out in 2003, and have only grown feebler since then. The one interesting piece of fight choreography in the movie is sword-based, in fact, as Selene uses a sword to swing herself around in the middle of a battle on slick ice. Actually, the whole movie has a more Gothic tone than the other Beckinsale-starring films in the series: more time spent in castles, a snow-covered ice palace that's actually slightly creative by this franchise's standard, and more aristocratic plotting by fusty Old World monsters using what I gather that screenwriter Cory Goodman thinks to be 18th Century diction. And this is to its benefit: it's not much, but it's more than the empty, metallic cities of the other movies.

Still, for a few flickers of visual interest, there's a lot to slog through: endless scenes of vampire politics and war strategy as Beckinsale (who even in her decline, is still the most galvanising on-screen figure in the film by a huge margin) is kept needlessly off to the side for much too long. Pulver, who has self-evidently been given the solitary direction "we wrote this character for Eva Green, but her agent wouldn't take our calls, so just play it like she would have", is kind of almost hammy enough to make a good villain, but she's not much of a successor to Bill Nighy or Michael Sheen in that regard. And the film's constant pauses to sketch out yet another branch of the vampire family tree get in the way of the meager entertainment value offered by the sub-par action sequences.

All that being said, Blood Wars does make a perfect finale to the story. The summary "oh, and then we stopped fighting, I guess" conclusion in voice-over is exactly as epic as the five-film arc deserves. Besides which, this perfectly sums up the experience that has been central to every Underworld film to date: finding the most perfunctory, boring, and derivative possible way to squander the scenario of an army of vampires fighting an army of werewolves. You'd think, just once in five movies, the filmmakers would have accidentally stumbled in a way to make that can't-miss pitch work, but absolutely no such thing ever happened. Now that's what I call artistic continuity.