“Dracula Untold” bites with a predictable but enjoyable action flick

Courtesy of Universal Pictures
Courtesy of Universal Pictures

The cinema is often filled with two types of movies: trendsetters and trend followers. The former is rare, the latter abundant. Looking at the list of movies of the past and upcoming months, it is clear that some of the most popular and therefore profitable trends are superheroes, the undead, huge battle sequences and imperfect protagonists who make questionably moral decisions for the greater good. “Dracula Untold” attempts to fulfill all of these trends at once, and the result is an entertaining if utterly predictable story that fails to bring anything new to the table.

The film takes place in medieval Transylvania, where Vlad the Impaler is the kind and just ruler of his kingdom. Played by Luke Evans, Vlad is a typical antihero with a dark and troubled past, having impaled thousands of Turkish soldiers, and even a small village, to bring peace to his country. To the film’s credit, the historical Vlad III is in fact a Romanian hero, and Mehmet’s invasion of Wallachia (the real name of Vlad’s kingdom) did take place (in 1459). However, the film portrays this history with broad strokes and a healthy dose of revisionism. After a Turkish scouting party is killed by an ancient cave-dwelling vampire, Mehmet blames Vlad and demands 1,000 boys as reparation, including Vlad’s own son. Vlad tries to reason with him but is denied, and thus agrees to the demands. The anguish of his wife, the resolute strength of his young son and a snide insult by a Turkish commander cause Vlad to have a change of heart, and he massacres the Turkish convoy. He then asks the vampire for its supernatural powers to save his people from the oncoming invasion, and thus Vlad becomes Dracula.

Having already played the trend of historical revisionism, the film now plays the trend of literary revisionism. Vampires have been frequent victims of their traditional characteristics being revised to suit the individual author’s taste, and even Frankenstein’s monster recently got this treatment in “I, Frankenstein,” so it was only a matter of time before the Lord of Vampires himself was once again given the revisionist stroke. This revision is extreme, though: The blood-sucking, predatory Count Dracula of horror is now sucking on a host of trends as a hero with a dark and troubled past using superpowers to fight massive armies to protect humanity in an action flick. Oh, and he made an evil choice, but it was for the greater good, causing him to become undead and now he has to fight his carnal urge to drink blood and complete saving his people before three days are up, or else he will remain undead for eternity. The only originality the plot offers is the fact that the motivation and personality of this Dracula have almost nothing in common with the traditional Dracula. How you feel about that will determine how you feel about the movie.

The film spends the remaining hour hitting every plot point you’d expect as if there was a Bingo scorecard involved. Adding to the weakness of the plot are the table scraps the supporting cast was given to work with. Sarah Gadon plays Vlad’s loving and supportive wife Mirena, and she does well with the role she’s given, but it should have been far larger. This is a woman who married and loves Vlad the Impaler of all people! That backstory naturally provided a lot of opportunity for Mirena to have a substantial part in the film, but nothing is made of it. The rest of the cast you’ve seen before: Dominic Cooper plays the stereotypical evil dictator Mehmet II, Paul Kaye plays the stereotypical good priest Lucian. These characters are utterly two-dimensional. Everyone else might as well not have names.

The production values of “Dracula Untold” are well done, but again they play to every trend. There’s the slow-motion action, the freeze-frame, the first-person perspective, the camera’s swerving around the action, large crowds of soldiers — it’s all there. The visuals are stunning at times, and overall don’t disappoint. The damage Vlad suffers in sunlight really looks like it is his skin peeling off in flakes. The only visual misfire is the scene where Vlad controls a swarm of bats, which looks positively amazing until they form a physical hand, at which point it looks too much like the bees from the Winnie the Pooh cartoons.

“Dracula Untold” is definitely a trend-follower. It brings nothing new to the table and packs as many cliches as it can into its predictable story. If you’re looking for a short, enjoyable action flick, this movie fits the bill, and the production value and Evans’ acting help make this movie stand out even if the story itself holds it back. Just don’t expect Count Dracula to show up, even if his name is in the title.

Rating: 3 stars

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