As effective and fat-free as its sinewy star, Luke Evans, "Dracula Untold" proves an absorbing, swiftly comprehensive origin tale. Director Gary Shore executes the competent script by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless with admirable dispatch and a strong visual sense.
The film winds back from the late 1800s of Bram Stoker's novel to mid-1400s Transylvania. There it finds one Prince Vlad III of Wallachia (Evans), a.k.a. Vlad the Impaler, embattled against the Ottoman Empire's Sultan Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper). In an ongoing power grab, Mehmed orders Vlad to hand over 1,000 of Wallachia's boys — including Vlad's own young son, Ingeras (Art Parkinson of "Game of Thrones") — to become soldiers in Mehmed's army. What's the upright warrior prince to do to save his people and prevent world domination by the Turks?
Become what he deems a "monster," of course. So he seeks out a vile, mountain-dwelling vampire (Charles Dance) who makes Vlad an offer he perhaps should but can't refuse: Drink my blood, gain my unearthly mega-powers and defeat your foes, but be doomed to live in the darkness forever.
The twist here is what provides the film with its propulsive tension and extra mythic jolt: If Vlad can resist the thirst for human blood for three days as he fights Mehmed, he'll revert to his former self.
What follows is a series of supernaturally tinged battle scenes — swarms of deadly bats dazzlingly factor in — and other charged confrontations as Vlad struggles to resist his blood lust, especially around his devoted wife, Mirena (Sarah Gadon). He must also elude such typical vampire snags as sunlight and silver.
Although the resolution is predictable — after all, the movie is about how Prince Vlad became Dracula — it's a satisfying journey, with Evans ("Immortals," the "Hobbit" movies) embodying his hero-villain role with requisite strength and gravitas. Fun coda too.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of warfare, vampire attacks, sensuality.
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.