This Dracula Begins-style sword-and-fangs curio plays like someone said, "What if we took a vampire flick but did a find-and-replace, swapping out all that bare-neck sensuality for some videogame ass-kicking?" Or: "Remember what the Star Wars prequels did for Darth Vader? Let's foist the same kind of tragic love story on Vlad the Impaler!" And so it was, and so it was dull, the greatest villain in all cinema bitten on the neck and drained of his hottest blood in Dracula Untold.
Here's a Dracula who feeds for honor, slays for duty, and ravishes no one but his own wife, who has to beseech him to do so. Within a single night, he murders a thousand-man army entirely by himself, and manages to pig-stick each corpse upon a pike like an olive on a toothpick. His genocide resembles a canapés tray — and suggests that the vampire power set also includes supernatural abilities for time management. And he of course broods over the violence that is this slab of Bram Stoker — related entertainment product's reason for existing, the filmmakers trying to pass off goofy solemnity as something like moral inquiry. This Vlad may be haunted by his deeds, but what's that count when millions worldwide are expected to get off on them?
All this might sound disarmingly mad. The opening scenes generally are: A prologue introduces Baby Vlad, a Transylvanian prince commandeered into military service, with thousands of other kids, by the murderous Turks who are the actual villains in a vampire film. It's in his youth that Vlad first wins the right to emboss "the Impaler" on his business cards, but after years of proving himself the cruelest of killers, the prince returns home to rule his ancestral lands from his throne in Castle Dracula. In the meantime, the boy has hunked up into the body of Luke Evans, the guy who's going to kill the dragon in the last of those overstuffed, undervalued, bizarrely generous Hobbit movies.
Once the Turks again demand Transylvania's children, the hero from The Hobbit plunges into the blackest of caves to meet the bad guy from Game of Thrones: the great Charles Dance, here a master vampire, pale and skeletal in his bad-Jedi robes, equal parts Bergman's Death and EC Comics' Crypt-Keeper. This sequence reveals the promise of pricey PG-13 studio fantasies: It's a creepy marvel, the work of top craftspeople with the budget to achieve wonders. Since there's so few serious movies left for them to work on, why not devote all their ingenuity to fitting Dance with Frito-yellow talons he can patter up and down Vlad's sword? Dance's cave-beast is endowed with the latest version of Predator-vision, and we're treated to a lacy bio-light show in his POV shots. But even that's not as effective as Dance's presence, no matter how much goop is pasted on him: The dude holds the camera like no one else in the movie, even when his job is to lay out this Dracula's silly rules. The upshot: By taking a swig of undead blood, Vlad can gain all the powers of a vampire for three days. If he makes it that long without giving in to the urge to feed, Vlad will then go right back to being human.
So it's a Faust story, a can't-buck-fate story, a giving-in-to-the-darkness story. But Vlad is never compellingly tempted to want more power, and despite his CGI war crimes he never seems at risk of losing his humanity. It's simply the contrivances of romantic-tragedy plotting that force him, an hour or so later, to go all-in on the bloodsucking. Worse, Dracula Untold's resources — of invention and money both — seem to have been spent in that opening third. (Savor the moody shots of Vlad, his family, and his carriage silhouetted on a hilltop beneath a brooding sky. Then wonder at what it means that such beauties now turn up routinely in films in which they do nothing but distract from a general hollowness.)
Too much of the last hour is a muddle of unconvincing, hard-to-read nighttime action scenes. There's little tension because this heroic Vlad is drearily overpowered. He summons all the world's bats and punches a flock of them into a Turkish army; whenever the sun comes up, he just wills great black clouds to blot it out, so he can keep right on killing. The climax entails a clever mano-a-vampo on a floor of silver coins — silver saps Dracula's power. But the great count's true weakness, it turns out, is that he's just not made for video-game action. Dracula Untold isn't a stake through his heart — it's a DualShock in his hands, which will neither kill him nor dazzle viewers.