Ambiguity isn’t tolerated by studios anymore, especially when it comes to high-profile characters that can serve as franchise-starters. And characters don’t come with a higher profile that the lord of vampires himself, Dracula. Origin stories boomed with Batman Begins and Casino Royale, unfortunately the only thing Hollywood took from the success of those films is that EVERY character needs their backstory completely explained. So now audiences will be served a gritty reboot of an icon they already know very well.
The kingdom of Vlad Tepes (Luke Evans) faces an outside threat in the form of Sultan Mehmed (Dominic Cooper). The Sultan demands money and men for his future conquests, and the request that his young son be asked to join this army, irks Vlad a great deal. So much so that he cuts down the messengers and soldiers for the insult. This display of aggression spreads across the land and once word reaches the Sultan himself, a horde of soldiers is sent en mass to Romania.
Vlad has kept peace in his kingdom for ten years, but his time as a good man is at an end. A great warrior in his own right, Vlad knows that it will take more than a mere man to stop the coming forces of the Ottoman Empire. Only fear will win this war. And what men fear are monsters.
To gain the power to do what he feels is right, Vlad makes a proverbial deal with the devil. Vlad pleads with Caligula (Charles Dance) to grant him what is necessary to save his kingdom and his family. The good king claims he is willing to go to lengths to become the monster that will strike fear into the heart of Mehmed and he is willing to give up anything in return. Vlad’s naiveté amuses Caligula, so he offers Vlad the supernatural powers he thinks will help him win this war, but only at a cost: his soul.
Vlad ‘s dealings with Caligula could have been an interesting film all by itself, as Evans and Dance are really the only two characters worth following in the whole 85 minutes that Dracula Untold runs. Sadly, these scenes go unexplored for quick escalation into Lord of the Rings-esque battles. Any story with an element of fantasy doesn’t need to lead to armored legions hacking each other up in slow-motion, but it seems like there is no other alternatives (Snow White and the Huntsman, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland). By focusing only on Vlad The Impaler’s transition to Dracula, what makes the legendary vampire so popular is barely dealt with, instead viewers are served up fight after fight.
Military victories soon pile up, yet Vlad’s disillusionment sets him apart from his wife and child. Sarah Godon, who plays Mirena, largely doesn’t figure into the story other than to fret over her husband and tell him that he’s changed from the good man he used to be. If you’re going to see Godon play a wife in a film this year, pick Enemy instead.
Dracula is an icon of monsters. A PG-13 rated film about him just seems wrong, what’s worse is that a film about Dracula goes to no lengths to make him scary. Luke Evans has moments where he taps into darkness as his role as savior rapidly descends into that of villain. Such moments, however, are used as a flotation device when boredom starts to sink in. The technical composition behind Dracula Untold is relatively impressive for rookie director Gary Shore, it’s just a shame that there isn’t something more compelling beneath the sales pitch to tell.
Luke Evans has made a name for himself in recent features like Fast and Furious 6 and The Hobbit, and he has no shortage of charisma, though no amount of it can save this picture. People already know what happens to Dracula and the build-up to that point isn’t compelling enough to sit through a completely foretold origin tale. It is the same problem evidenced in Star Wars prequels, only this film doesn’t even have the luxury of lightsabers.