“Untold” is a curious word to be knocking around in the title of a film about Dracula. Since the character’s first appearance in Irish author Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, his story has been nothing but told and retold throughout popular media. In most places he’s a household name.
Yet here we are again; back to the beginning. Or, at least, back to a very heavily-fictionalized interpretation of the beginning, in which Vlad the Impaler, Prince of Wallachia, manages to become Dracula while simultaneously beating back the invading forces of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed III. In the process he’ll also attempt to shake off a lot of his impaling-related notoriety by being a loving family man motivated primarily by a desire to protect his wife, son and fellow countrymen. Because Hollywood.
Functionally, Dracula Untold is essentially Frank Miller’s 300 with King Leonidas swapped out for the Count. They’re both films about a small, more traditionally “good” force going to battle against a much larger, much better-armed army of moustache-twirling evil foreigners. They’re both films with a particular focus on showy, CGI-heavy warfare, held against which the characters and story and whatever else feel entirely superfluous. And they’re both films which rely on a significant suspension of disbelief in order to be properly enjoyed for what they are.
The difference between the two is that while 300 was completely aware of what it was – a stylized adaptation of what was already a stylized semi-historical graphic novel – Dracula Untold is playing it completely straight. This version of Vlad is heavily implied to be harbouring some long-term psychological issues after being a “royal hostage” (read: child soldier) of the Ottomans during his formative years. His relationship with his son and his people, and his refusal to sacrifice either of them when the Sultan comes a-calling, are informed almost entirely by this. And his violent refusal – which prompts a full-scale invasion of Transylvania as punishment – is intended to be a grand moral statement; Vlad won’t allow his fate to be bestowed upon anyone else, whatever he has to sacrifice in order to prevent it.
The thing is, nobody cares about any of this. It’s very difficult to moralize someone whose moniker is “the Impaler” anyway, but doubly so when the whole point of the film you’re watching is to show how that person eventually became the most powerful – and, historically, evil – vampire who ever lived. So despite Dracula Untold’s fervent assertions that this guy is really just a misunderstood family man who made tough choices for the right reasons, the whole thing still comes across as distractingly silly. And that’s without all the supernatural elements layered on top.
The film’s underlying narrative conceit is that in order to become powerful enough to defend his homeland against the attacking Turks, Vlad enters into a deal with a Master Vampire played by Charles Dance. The bargain, with its suspiciously plot-convenient strings, is that Vlad will be granted the powers of a vampire for three days – after which he’ll return to his original form. Unless, of course, his insatiable thirst for human blood gets the better of him, in which case he’ll be saddled with the powers (and, by extension, the curse of vampirism) for all eternity.
Dance is on typically good form as the snarling cave-dweller, but Luke Evans – while reasonably convincing as an old-school swashbuckler and very efficient at spending the CGI budget – doesn’t really have the necessary range to pull this kind of tortured hero stuff off. He isn’t bad, but he’s upstaged by pretty much everyone he shares the screen with, and because of his character’s ubiquity we already know exactly what the third act twist will be. There are really no emotional stakes in the story at all.
The audience’s only real tether to what’s going on is Vlad’s wife, played by the disarmingly beautiful Sarah Gadon. She has a genuine ability to emote and if anything is going to make you care about the story or its characters then chances are it will be her. Dominic Cooper is game as the villain, but he’s more of a plot device to propel Vlad through his transformation into Dracula rather than an actual character. He hits the right cartoonishly-evil notes, but Cooper’s accent is a bit wobbly and his boy band haircut isn’t exactly fitting for a Sultan.
Then again, I suspect exactly nobody is watching this for the characterization. The real selling point of Dracula Untold is the action, and in that regard it’s more than competent. The central premise might fall a bit flat in other areas, but as an excuse to send one man headlong into an entire army, swatting everyone aside with super-strength before transforming into a swarm of bats and using them to body-slam people … yeah, it’s pretty much perfect for that. The effects are excellent and even the close-up swordplay is rather well-choreographed, so for all its flaws there’s still a very decent action film nestled in here.
The PG-13 rating is irritating, as the action is fairly anodyne and it seems this is a film which would benefit from a little more bloodletting and sexuality. The aforementioned 300 used both to memorable effect, and I can’t imagine anything would have been lost as a result. Still, what’s here is enjoyable (if unmemorable) enough to not be angry about. I don’t feel like my time was necessarily wasted, but there’re plenty better things to have spent it on.
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