Two stars (out of four)
PG-13 (intense sequences of warfare, vampire attacks, disturbing images, some sensuality)
Blame it on “Twilight” backlash.
Just in time for Halloween, Legendary Pictures brings us the manliest of vampire movies, an armor-clad, battle-worn, muscle-flexing hybrid of Bram Stoker, “300” and “Gladiator.”
Was “Dracula Untold” conceived as a reaction to sparkly, sensitive vampires with cheekbones to die for? Pining Edward wouldn’t last long in this unforgiving gothic landscape of blood and steel, not to mention blood-drenched abs of steel.
Irish commercial director Gary Shore and scribes Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless (what a name for a writer of vampire lore) thoughtfully throw a credit Stoker’s way, but their reboot, or re-imagining, or whatever you’d call it, doesn’t much resemble that classic literary work.
The film actually borrows the formula of a comic-book origin story with an emphasis on Dracula’s rocky childhood (like many superheroes, he’s got daddy issues), his acquisition of awesome superpowers and the tragic consequences of those unholy abilities, which threaten those he holds most dear.
Welsh actor Luke Evans — best known as the villain in “Fast & Furious 6” and Bard the Bowman in “The Hobbit” trilogy — stars as Vlad, a Transylvanian prince spirited away as a boy by ruthless Turks, who train him to serve in their marauding army of merciless young killers.
Sazama and Sharpless are vague about the details, but the grown Vlad has a change of heart, repents of his impaling ways and returns to Transylvania, where he settles down, starts a family and rules his people in peace.
His domestic reverie is interrupted by an old friend, the Turkish sultan Mehmed (a charcoal-eyed Dominic Coooper), who demands a tribute of a thousand boy soldiers, as well as the prince’s own son (Art Parkinson).
Vlad refuses Mehmed’s command with a heavy heart because he’s wildly outnumbered by the Turks. Desperate to save his family and his people, he journeys to the lair of a legendary monster (played by Charles Dance — if you thought Tywin Lannister couldn’t get any more evil, think again), seeking the power the creature might grant him.
Once Vlad is “turned,” he becomes the superest of superheroes, all the Avengers rolled into one with some Justice League thrown in for good measure. He’s got Spidey sense, the speed of The Flash, control of the weather a la Storm, the strength of Superman (and a Kryptonite-like Achilles heel) and an affinity for bats, like a certain Caped Crusader.
Vlad’s bat-whispering is clearly Shore’s favorite of these impressive superpowers. He really pulls out the visual-effects stops when it comes to showing the vampire vanish in a cloud of night-flying critters or directing a swarm of the little black beasts to do his bidding in battle.
“Dracula Untold” is rated PG-13, so it’s strangely light on blood for a movie about someone who drinks the stuff — or rather tries to resist drinking the stuff, which is difficult when Vlad’s wife (Sarah Gadon) swans about with her neck and bosom exposed, like a walking buffet.
Shore compensates for the bloodlessness with a tableaux of stylized landscapes and some fancy cinematography during the film’s copious war scenes — at one point, we glimpse Vlad crushing his enemies in the reflection of a sword — but the result is more disorienting than visually arresting.
Evans is certainly virile, but he’s more convincing as a devoted father and husband than a reluctant fanged fiend wrestling with demon impulses. Sazama and Sharpless can’t seem to decide what sort of animal their Dracula truly is — cuddly family man or bloodthirsty monster.
Adopting the pomp and seriousness of a historical epic, “Dracula Untold” trots out the usual imagery — stakes, crosses, silver, torch-lit castles, jittery monks — and proves disappointingly toothless when it comes to toying with Hollywood’s bloodsucking tropes.
The movie is reportedly the first in a planned franchise and it does make a weirdly playful leap in its final scene that hints of more interesting, even goofy, things to come. If it’s going to succeed, however, the series needs to evolve into something darker, sexier and more twisted.
It’s difficult to recommend “Dracula Untold” when other directors are conducting much more original and intriguing genre experiments in the form of films like “Byzantium” and “Only Lovers Left Alive.”
Those are movies that make you want to stick your neck out.
I’ve read a mixture of reviews on this which makes me curious enough to watch it. Before now I did expect it to be dark and twisted and possibly leave me unsettled at the end. I was hoping for that.