There was not ever going to be a good reason to tell the secret tragic backstory of how Count Dracula, one of English culture's all-time best unrelentingly wicked bad guys, was actually motivated by love of his family and country. Let's be totally clear about that part. Secret tragic backstories for the Wicked Witch of the West and Darth Vader had already tried to ruin two of cinema's finest villains; the same treatment for Bram Stoker's merciless, charismatic vampire would be too much to bear, even if Dracula Untold was a phenomenally great piece of filmmaking in every respect. And it's not: it's piercingly mediocre and clichΓ©d in every possible respect. Let's be totally clear about that part, too.

The film, which has been retrofitted into the first volley of the hoped-for (though I am not clear by whom) Universal Monster Universe thanks to the addition of a clumsy final scene, mostly takes place in 15th Century Wallachia, which is always and unyielding referred to as "Transylvania". Here, Prince Vlad (Luke Evans), ruler of a people that are variously depicted as agrarian or townsfolk, based on the needs of the scene, maintains as much independence as he can against the always-present threat of the Turkish Empire, where he served in the army as a boy and adolescent, earning the war name "Vlad the Impaler" for his particularly gory way of displaying his dead victims, in a form of terrifically effective psychological warfare. His childhood friend, current Turkish Sultan Mehmed (Dominic Cooper in the year's most unfortunate brownface to date, while we eagerly await Exodus: Joel Edgerton's Tanning Disaster) has decided to flex his muscles a bit demanding an unacceptable tribute of Wallachian Transylvanian boys to serve in his military, especially including Vlad's own son Ingeras (Art Parkinson). This Vlad will not accept, and so he makes a deal with, if not the Devil, than the best Devil analogue around those parts, a vile man-like creature (Charles Dance) living in a cave since ages unknown, after he made his own deal for eternal life and power. Vlad gains super-strength, the ability to transform into a colony of bats, a sensitivity to light, and a desperate thirst for human blood. If he can make it three days without ingesting blood, he'll be freed of his hunger and his powers, and so the film turns into a 71-hour countdown till he caves in and eats somebody, a development which is not remotely surprising, nor is the identity of the person he consumes surprising when it happens.

Between them, director Gary Shore and writers Matt Sazama & Burk Sharpless have made a total of no features before this, which probably explains why Dracula Untold feels so calculating in its assembly from the spare parts of other movies (which, if we were talking a Frankenstein reboot, we might have something). Something like a Mitteleuropean 300 in its overall impact, only with blues instead of browns and hardly any slow-motion, it's a vampire film where vampires seem to be reluctantly added in after the fact, and horror doesn't exist other than in a couple individual flashes. Certainly, as a story that wants to play on the audience's affection for Dracula in all his guises throughout the century and change of his existence, it has absolutely none of the things that are usually associated with him: not the animalistic hunger and danger of the F.W. Murnau version in Nosferatu, not the suave European superiority of Bela Lugosi in Universal's first Dracula, not Christopher Lee's hateful cruelty in the Hammer series of Dracula pictures, not the erotic pull of Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula. He's just a generic super-powered badass, whose specific paranormal traits aren't even explored until the film is most of the way over. Evans gamely tries to inject some passion and fervor into all this ahistorical claptrap, but his dominant mode is brooding and quiet, and the film demands more rage, more Gerard Butler-style barking. That's just if it's going to survive on the dubious level of being a plastic, paint-by-numbers swordfighting action film. For it to work as a Dracula film... no, that was never going to happen. I cannot imagine the performance Evans would have had to give if he was going to actually sell this lukewarm Angry Dad as one of history's greatest monsters - certainly, the script doesn't sacrifice one detail that actually suggests that Bram Stoker's iteration of the character could possibly emerge from the noble, moral man who we see sadly allowing himself to be turned into a demon for the greater good.

Surrounding this vague, uninteresting hero is an entire vague, uninteresting movie, full of powerfully dark, metallic, ugly images (somehow, this was shot by John Schwartzman, a cinematographer whose tendency towards sun-kissed Rockwellian imagery is arguably problematic in its own right, but far more attractive than anything this film has going on), and action sequences which are so ridiculously infatuated with weightless CGI that they're never exciting in even a small way. Having put all that energy into making Vlad such a well-etched generic hero, the writers have nothing left over the rest of the cast, leaving only Dance with the film's hugest gimme role to make anything like an impact. Meanwhile, people who are at least capable of being interesting, like Dominic Cooper and Sarah Gadon, drift around filling parts that require only a warm body, not any kind of acting complexity, and contributing to the overall sense that everyone involved in making the film was as bored by it as we are in the audience.

It's just so pointless: the action's not exciting, the lead character's journey is cobbled together from third-generation copies of Joseph Campbell that we've all seen dozens of times, and the frisson when he inevitably transitions into the iconic literary figure we were promised never comes, sine the script so painfully avoids making this Dracula a bad guy, or even a conflicted antihero. He's just a tragic woobie. Not as tragic as the paying customer who sits through all of this hoping for even one frame that doesn't feel recycled, or one story beat that goes for even the second-most-obvious narrative trope, but tragic.