DRACULA UNTOLD Review

First time feature writers Burk Sharpless and Matt Sazama have traced the root of the Dracula name back to the descendants of Vlad II of Wallachia or "Vlad the Impaler" and told his story as a point of origin for the Dracula myth that was popularized by Bram Stoker in his 1897 horror novel. While this may seem like an interesting take on an age old tale it speaks volumes that it arrives at a time in the cinematic landscape when Universal wants to create a universe akin to Marvel's with their classic monster line-up as well as being on the back end of the vampire craze. It was evident from the first trailers of Dracula Untold that everything this film had to offer was already being shown. Strangely enough though, the trailers implied a large-scale film; one with sweeping locations and handsome costume design that would span possible centuries while rooting this origin story in an environment we might want to come to better know given the chance. In actuality the final product feels very small, a film akin to that of January's I, Frankenstein which results in nothing more than an ugly step-sister to the summer blockbusters that have equally silly stories or premises, but real vision and money behind them. To come down even harder on Dracula Untold is to take into consideration this is director Gary Shore's feature directorial debut (working from a screenplay by two rookie writers) and every ounce of that inexperience shows on the screen. To keep it simple, this is as by the numbers as you could ask for which I'm sure Shore was happy about because he'd managed to make something that looks and feels like everything else does at the moment, but it does nothing to set itself apart as an introduction to a world where great things could possibly happen. It is even somewhat unfair Universal would strap that responsibility on Shore and his crew in the first place. From the first 300-inspired frames of the film one can see where this is going, one can tell the type of tone that will be used simply by the dim aesthetic and bland dialogue that comes from every other film set in the 1400's. Dracula Untold is a mess, a film with some clear ambition (which is actually saying something), but one that can't seem to summon that ambition either on the page or in its visuals resulting in a film that is little more than recycled rubbish.

Vlad AKA "Vlad the Impaler" AKA "Son of the Devil" AKA Dracula (Luke Evans) is back bitches!
Even with its clear visual inspiration from Zack Snyder's man among men tale evident in its opening it also chooses to allow the story to echo that of young boys trained to be killers, brought up to be warriors and know nothing else. It is as a part of this Turk army that young Vlad Tepes establishes his reputation as "Vlad the Impaler" as he became known as the soldier that killed thousands and thousands by shish-kabobbing them on spears. The film opens up as if it were going to be narrated by the voice of Vlad's young son, Ingeras (Art Parkinson), but once the title card goes up we are done with that little excursion and the film is presented in third person as it documents Vlad's quest to defend his people from an underused Dominic Cooper by any means necessary.  Like I said in my opening paragraph, there is plenty of material to mine here for an interesting take on the Dracula story, but the trouble is that neither Shore nor his writers seem to know how to utilize the potential they have on hand. As Vlad, Luke Evans is solid in what I'm sure he intended to be his breakout role. The guy served as a villain in Fast & Furious 6 as well as one of the many secondary characters in the world of The Hobbit and so this was his time to go solo and shine. He does what he can with the role, but like the film itself it never feels he has anything fresh to bring to the interpretation. After leaving the Turk army he returns to the land of his birth kingdom where he resides as Prince in Transylvania Castle. All is well in his quiet corner of the world, sans the creepy half breed that he discovered in a dark crevice on a mountain, but other than that all is well. That is, of course, until Cooper's Sultan Mehmed demands a thousand boys including Vlad's son for his army. This is a part of some diplomatic agreement to keep peace between their lands, but despite being raised together as brothers as they continuously say but never display, Vlad cannot yield to Mehmed's latest request and allow his son to experience the same shattering childhood he did. In an effort to put a stop to Mehmed and his army Vlad returns to the dark mountain where he pleads to the mysterious monster (Charles Dance) to share his powers with him, thus becoming the titular bloodsucker.

What is most disappointing about Dracula Untold is that despite never seeming like it would be any good or give us reason to expect much it dips below even those expectations. This could have been a large-scale historical epic comparable to the films of the late 50's and early 60's with splashes of supernatural mystery that enhanced the audiences intrigue and teased even more reason to follow the studio along on their endeavor, but instead they play it safe and make Dracula a super hero and not even a super anti-hero. He is a super hero conglomerate in every sense of the word as they allow him to shape-shift, turning himself into bats with lightning speed, the almost immediate healing powers, super strength while never losing sight of his kryptonite in the elements that have always been true of the Dracula legend. The inclusion of things such as Dracula meaning "son of the dragon" and the way it is incorporated into the mythology of who Vlad was as a soldier is interesting and plays up the more conventional ways to allude to the more recognizable features of the character. The way in which it positions the dilemma of being able to rid ones self of the curse if able to abstain from drinking human blood for three days after the initial transformation is a cool little caveat used strictly for plotting purposes, but is at least inventive. These kinds of small token ideas that influence the perception of who this man we now simply accept as a kind of monstrous legend enlighten us to why he has garnered such a title. They are the most interesting parts of an origin story that give a more well-rounded take on what kind of person was there before becoming something bigger than their actual identity, something we maybe didn't understand as well as we thought we did. Rather than simply exploring the mind and motivation of the man before he became the monster Sharpless and Sazama (those names are even killin' me) line him up with a standard plot exercise that goes from necessary exposition, straight to inciting incident, then throw in the Dracula stuff with a quick cut to a big battle at the end. I can't imagine it is anything anyone could be proud of, but I guess there's no need for pride in a world where you can always re-boot and begin again.

Mirena (Sarah Gadon) is the pretty wife of Vlad the III and that is all you need to know.
By the end of the film I sat asking myself if the point of it all was worth it all. After certain events transpire (that I'm tempted to go ahead and spoil because I just don't care) one has to wonder if it would have been easier, better, or just flat out worth it to let Mehmed train your kid for a few years (risk the battle) and let him return as a more seasoned, well-worn Prince instead of sacrificing another thousand upon thousands of lives for the sake of your one small corner of the world. I guess it can be chalked up to pride, love or any other attribute that a leader and a father would need in order to be successful but then again you have to argue if Vlad was really successful in his efforts to keep his wife and son safe not to mention his kingdom of people. Besides the aforementioned ways in which I could have only hoped this might be better than I expected there is nothing redeeming about Dracula Untold. None of the other characters here really matter except for maybe Ingeras, but even he gets so little screen time there is no actual character or person there. The performances from Sarah Gadon as Vlad's wife Mirena is one note and strictly present to set-up a needed emotional pull during the films climax, but the script gives her nothing to do either. Cooper, who is a really good actor and has done good to excellent work in films such as The Devils Double and The Duchess is quickly becoming the Paul Bettany of recent years as he continues to take bad guy roles in disposable trash like this, Need for Speed and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  Needless to say, even the greatest of performances would have found it difficult to rise above this material or the amateur storytelling techniques (including some truly bad camera movements during the action scenes that are meant to be cool but come off cheap) implied. As if it were January we once again find ourselves with a film where everything about it screams studio cash grab. A sad attempt at trying to do nothing more than piggy back on every other hot idea that's worked in cinema recently. I can only hope general audiences have learned to detect these types of movies and are now well aware the best thing to do is steer clear of them because nothing good can come of it.