Director: Gary Shore
Cast: Luke Evans, Sarah Gadon, Dominic Cooper, Art Parkinson, Charles Dance, Diarmaid Murtagh, Paul Kaye
MPAA Rating: (for intense sequences of warfare, vampire attacks, disturbing images, and some sensuality)
Running Time: 1:32
Release Date: 10/10/14
Review by Mark Dujsik | October 9, 2014
In case the nickname isn't enough of a hint, Vlad the Impaler didn't get the reputation for being the historical basis for Bram Stoker's Dracula because he was a nice guy. When a person's legacy—outside of the rumors of being an unnatural, diabolical monster that feeds on the blood of the living—consists of a penchant for hoisting one's enemies on spiked posts, we don't expect a sympathetic portrait of that person. Dracula Untold tries to give us one, so here's a Vlad (Luke Evans) who has returned to Transylvania and wants to put his impaling days behind him so that he can foster peace in his realm. At this point, you would be forgiven for thinking, Pull the other one.
It's not only Vlad who's neutered in this origin story of the man who would be Dracula but also the historical context of a movie that appears to care a little bit about history. The villains are the Turks, with their mission to spread the Ottoman Empire across the known world. There's no attempt on the part of Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless' screenplay to provide any of the geopolitical or religious background to this conflict (In fact, there's no mention of religion apart from the generic battle-of-good-and-evil and occult stuff). Then again, going to a movie about Dracula and awaiting a treatise on the remnant conflicts in the centuries following the Crusades is probably a misguided expectation.
Actually, it is one, but that's how dull this version of the historical Vlad III mixed with the mythological Dracula is. When one starts to hope that a movie might take a respite for a lecture on the political climate of Eastern Europe in the 15th century, that's a good sign of how clichéd and underdeveloped the movie's plot and characters are. A history lesson might tell us something we didn't already know or show us something we haven't already seen.
The potentially intriguing marriage of history—or this version of it—and myth is front and center during the movie's first 15 minutes, or it at least seems that way based on the two times the movie stops to provide exposition. The first time, it stops before the action starts—and literally so. Director Gary Shore's camera takes us through a frozen-in-time battle, as Vlad's son Ingeras (Art Parkinson) narrates how his father was taken by the Turks as a political hostage and molded into a dreaded warrior whose very name caused his foes to retreat in terror.
The second time, we hear about a mysterious creature in a dank cave on Broken Tooth Mountain, which is a name that automatically provides an air of ominous mystique. The creature was once a man who longed for immortality, and a deal with a demon went predictably wrong. Now the man is "Master Vampire" (Charles Dance), and Vlad believes this creature is the only thing that can help him stop the Turks from taking his son and a thousand other Transylvanian children and turning them into soldiers.
The scenes in the cave are the movie's most notable—creepy (lingering on shots of bats and spiders and cobwebs), filled with shadowy threats, and even a little playful. That last quality comes from Dance, whose performance toes the line of scenery-chewing but holds back just enough so he remains menacing.
His screen time is sadly short, though, and we're left with a group of actors who seem to believe that a less-is-more approach is the proper one. Vlad becomes a temporary vampire (It's a good thing they explain the mechanics of how this works again, since the cave scene is too enjoyable to take in such trivial details as how the mechanics of a "temporary vampire" work), and his wife Mirena (Sarah Gadon) accepts her husband's new state of being with a blank stare. For his part, Evans reciprocates with one of his own.
From Vlad's transformation onward, the movie becomes a fast-moving blur. The new vampire shows off his powers, which include the ability to see like and through the eyes of the creatures of the night. Late in the movie, it's revealed that he can control the weather, which is something that could have come in handy earlier when he's tiptoeing around swathes of sunlight.
The only power that really matters is his ability to turn into a colony of bats. He transforms into the winged rodents and takes out the thousand soldiers approaching his castle in a shaky, quickly cut, and incomprehensible muddle of a battle scene. The movie's other action sequences follow the same pattern (save for one fight in which Vlad's powers are arbitrarily limited until he needs them). It is amusing how Mehmed (Dominic Cooper), the leader of the Turkish army, responds to the tactics of his opponent. Determining the problem is that his soldiers fear Vlad, Mehmed blindfolds his army, which doesn't exactly address the problem of Vlad killing them in droves.
Silliness such as that is minimal here, but that means the movie's general attitude is one of self-seriousness. Dracula Untold only suffers from that attitude, and what we get is an overly familiar Dracula movie that lacks a distinguishing personality.
Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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