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Posts Tagged ‘Dominic Cooper’

There are easy targets, and then there are easy targets, and then there are people who call their movie Dracula Untold. Untold? Really? After dozens of various adaptations and sequels, with Dracula himself portrayed by actors ranging from Frank Langella to Adam Sandler, what exactly is there left to tell? Plus, given this is another one of those CGI-heavy mid-budget genre movies that never really get well-reviewed, the potential for people to be snippily punful is almost irresistible. Dracula Untold? I’ll see that and give you Dracula Uninspired, Dracula Unnecessary, and Dracula Unwatchable, just for starters.

Cheap shots like this are only available if Gary Shore’s new movie isn’t any good, of course. It might very well be good: you’ve got to keep an open mind, after all. But you must admit that the omens are not promising. The Lord of the Undead is played by Luke Evans, one of those actors hugely dependent on the quality of the script he’s given (and, by the way, the fact it’s all too easy to accidentally describe Untold as ‘the new Dracula movie with Lee Evans’ is another mark against it), while the rest of the film promises a lot of heftless CGI and lazy pop-culture steals.

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Anyway, proceedings get underway with an expository flashback of dubious historicity, describing the life of the young man known in his lifetime as Vlad Tepes, prince of Transylvania, but more noted nowadays as the Vlad the Impaler. As this is only a 15-rated movie, of course, Vlad’s impaling days are behind him and he is more concerned with being a good leader of his people and a good husband and father. (At this point we pause to deal with incipient nausea.) To be honest, it’s a bit unclear who our hero was impaling in his younger days – the historical Dracula’s victims, if indeed he’s not just the victim of propaganda, were Turks, but as the film opens he is effectively a client king of the Turkish Ottoman Empire (represented here by Dominic Cooper’s one-dimensionally sadistic Mehmed II).

Relations between Transylvania and Turkey take a turn for the worse when Mehmed decrees a thousand Transylvanian children will be conscripted into the Turkish Janissary corps, along with Vlad’s own son. Needless to say, our hero can’t bring himself to comply with this order, triggering a war with his much more powerful neighbour. Things look bleak for the Transylvanians, but Vlad embarks on a desperate search for help from an unlikely source: at the top of the movie he discovered an ancient and powerful supernatural evil was in residence in one of the remote mountains of his land, and so off he pops to see if it will help out.

Needless to say, this turns out to be an elder vampire (left nameless on screen, but according to some publicity it’s supposed to be the emperor Caligula), played by Charles Dance (who’s really quite good in the part). The vampire grants Vlad immense speed, strength, and some other useful tricks, but also an insatiable thirst for human blood. If he can resist the temptation to guzzle down some of the red for three days, he will return to his normal state – but if he fails, not only may the kingdom be lost, but he will be damned to eternity as a bloodsucking monster…

Or so it says here, anyway. I’ll be honest and say that while Dracula Untold isn’t utterly worthless, it does have serious problems, and – for me – one of them is the choice of story structure. This is ‘the tragedy of a man whose utter dedication to doing the right thing results in the destruction of everything he holds dear’, and the thing about this is that for it to be a tragedy, the protagonist has to retain his conscience and remain broadly sympathetic throughout: he has to realise just what a big mistake he has made.

The result is that we never really get Dracula as a relentless, terrifying predator, never as a genuine force of evil – he’s just a nice guy with a bit of a past who makes some mistakes, for the best of reasons. Luke Evans is by no means the least impressive Dracula in cinema history, but even he can’t really make much of an impression with material like this. The producers might well argue that this is an attempt at a revisionist Dracula, to put more of a human face on the fiend, but why would you bother? Who looks at a proper Dracula movie and thinks ‘Hmm, okay, but it would be better if he was a bit nicer’? This guy was born to be bad. Needless to say, it looks likely that any future outings with Evans as Dracula will see him as a brooding, romantic anti-hero rather than an unstoppable monster.

This is all the more ironic given that Dracula Untold has apparently been retrofitted to launch a potential franchise based on Universal’s stable of famous supernatural heavies, in which they will all cross over with each other, at least as long as the box office stays healthy. Yes, everyone wants a slice of Avengers-style pie, don’t they? Personally I hope the rest of the monsters are a bit more, um, monstrous.

But this isn’t even really a proper horror movie, just a fantasy action film with a debt to things like 300 and Lord of the Rings. The 300-ish stylings are particularly pertinent given just how much of the historical subtext this movie actively ducks – the historical Dracula was, if anything, a Christian hero, famous for helping to keep the Muslim Turks out of Europe. Exploring the ramifications of this in any kind of systematic way would be far too provocative (and possibly demand too much thoughtfulness from the audience), and so we get simple good guys and bad guys and barely any mention of religion.

The best you can say about Dracula Untold, really, is that it chooses a fairly solid story and tells it competently. It’s just not a good Dracula story or even a particularly good vampire tale. Moments with potential – Dracula taking on an entire army single-handed, for instance – are just fumbled, possibly due to the director’s lack of experience, while too many others lack even that – too often Dracula is reduced to a banal, pedestrian figure. Sex, death, blood, and style are the essentials of vampire cinema, and Dracula Untold comes up short in every department. It’s sort of vaguely enjoyable while you’re watching it, but in a week’s time you’ll have forgotten most of the details. I’ve just thought of another one: Dracula Underwhelming.

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I was moved to ponder, not long ago, the somewhat vexed issue of whether it might not be a good idea to institute a licensing system whereby film-makers, etc, would not be permitted to use a really good title unless they could first prove they were capable of doing it justice. This idea may have first crept into my head in the summer of 2009, when I wandered into a branch of a well-known bookseller and happened upon Seth Grahame-Smith (‘and Jane Austen’)’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Another winning title, embodying a genuinely funny concept. Unfortunately the book itself was, possibly predictably, and certainly appropriately, rotten.

And so I approached Timur Bekmambetov’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter with a level of misgiving. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies did well enough to prompt a slew of similarly improbable mash-ups, ranging from Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, to (good grief) Android Karenina. Grahame-Smith himself knocked out Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and has written and exec-produced the movie. So, cause for apprehension there. On the other hand, this film is a product of the same creative vision that gave us the rampantly insane excess of Wanted, an everyday tale of weaver-hitmen and their precognitive loom that did more than any other to epitomise the summer of 2008 for me. So this is a movie which looked like it might go either way.

Perhaps it takes a director of Kazakh origin, like Timur Bekmambetov, to cast such a new and original light on one of the most central and iconic figures in American history. But in this case I sort of doubt it. Semi-professional Liam Neeson lookee-likee Benjamin Walker plays the great man himself throughout most of his life (not the very early bits though), in a story which purports to reveal that Honest Abe actually had a few startling secrets in his hinterland. We first meet Abraham Lincoln as a lad, and even at this young age he is fiercely committed to justice, equality, fairness, etc, etc. You know the drill. Unfortunately this indirectly ends up putting his family on the wrong side of a shady character, who chooses to work his issues out by chowing down on Mrs Lincoln’s blood vessels. That’s right, he’s a vampire! Yowser! Who’d have seen that coming?

Naturally, when he grows up, Lincoln sets out to avenge his mum, only to discover he is not up to the task. He is taken in hand by the mysterious Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper), who teaches him the forbidden lore of the undead and equips him for the battles to come. To be honest, Abraham Lincoln is a back-to-basics kind of vampire hunter and usually turns up packing only what is technically known as a damn great axe (with a silver edge, of course). When not thinning the ranks of the undead of Illinois, he dabbles in the law and with politics, and embarks on a rather sweet romance with a charming local girl (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, as winsome as ever). However, as his battle with the forces of darkness and their leader (Rufus Sewell) intensifies, he begins to realise the full extent to which the injustices of slavery are intertwined with the vampire presence in the southern states. Could it be that he will have to take a more public role if he is to fully eradicate the menace he has dedicated his life to destroying?

Well, look, before we go any further, I’m English and the limit of my knowledge of Abraham Lincoln is basically: top hat, chinstrap beard, freed slaves, Gettysburg Address, ‘Apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?’, Henry Fonda in Young Mr Lincoln, got speared to death in an episode of Star Trek. To any of our former-colonial friends reading this and feeling outraged, I would ask you to supply a brief essay on the life of Oliver Cromwell (not derived from Wikipedia) with your complaints, and we’ll take it from there. What I’m basically trying to say is that I know very little about Abraham Lincoln as a historical character, which some might consider a handicap when attempting to intelligently review a Lincoln biopic.

However, as you may have possibly surmised, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is not strictly a by-the-book biopic. In fact, I suspect that a few people would consider the depiction of Lincoln as an axe-twirling bad-ass warrior to be tasteless and/or monumentally absurd. I’m not convinced about the former but it is certainly the latter. This film is impossible to take seriously, but – and this is the key thing – Bekmambetov seems to be fully aware of this, which stops proceedings from becoming actually annoying. The main problem I had with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was that it took an idea which was an amusing concept in its own right, and felt the need to try and funny it up by actually playing it for laughs, inserting rather creaky old jokes. The great strength of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is that it’s played absolutely straight (or at least as straight as possible, given it features the President of the USA standing on top of a moving train hitting vampires with an axe) – one never gets a sense of the director or writer winking at you and going ‘Ho ho, isn’t this wacky?’

Most of the time this works really well, particularly in the opening part of the film, which deals with Lincoln’s years before he rose to prominence. For a while it even seems as if Bekmambetov is trying to handle the historical biography as painstakingly as the action-horror, because there are a few non-vampire-hunting scenes which go on for what feel like a surprisingly long time. Problems start to set in, however, when Lincoln actually becomes president and grows the beard (both of these happen off-screen, the latter not surprisingly) – and all of a sudden we’re into the historical events of the American Civil War. Now, it may possibly be that my lack of familiarity with US history is to blame, but it seemed to me that the film was taking my comprehension of what was happening for granted here. There’s also the more serious point that the film is dealing with the deaths of real people – real people from 150 years ago, admittedly, but even so. As a silly romp the film is enjoyable stuff, but attempts to hit genuine notes of pathos and human drama just feel very uncomfortable and misjudged when they occur. Thankfully the film returns to its previously nonsensical vein for an appropriately uproarious finale.

Ultimately this is a very silly film, but the actors hurl themselves into it with impressive gusto, and the CGI-slathered recreation of 19th century America looks appealing. Bekmambetov indulges himself in his usual visually-inventive but utterly implausible action-business – fun to look at but not remotely convincing – for example, a chase through the middle of a stampede, the train fight, and so on. This is not a great action film, not a great horror movie, and (you’ll be surprised to hear) not the greatest telling of the story of President No.16 ever made, and it has nothing like the breathtakingly in-your-face bonkersness of Wanted (nor even, it must be said, that film’s inventiveness of plot). But Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is, for the most part, a fun and amusing piece of work which just about earns its right to such a catchy title.

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