Aaaah, Vin Diesel. There’s just a certain something that presents itself when he’s the star of a movie. Is it the knowledge that the movie will almost certainly be the kind of action that only otherwise exists in the minds of adventurous twelve-year-olds? Is it that peculiar smirk he gets when the Toretto he plays (they are all Dominic Toretto) is satisfied? Is it his penchant for stuff like this? Who knows? The important thing is that Vin Diesel movies usually deliver on whatever that promise is. Sadly, The Last Witch Hunter doesn’t give us that special something, but it ought to be credited for trying.
Some 800 years ago, the fearsome Witch Queen (Julie Engelbrecht) released the black plague on humanity in her contempt for the species. Having lost his wife and daughter to the plague flies, Kaulder (Vin Diesel) joins a hunting party to defeat her in her lair; as he slays her, she curses him with eternal life, that he must always live with his loss. In the present time, Kaulder is now “the weapon” for an organization called The Axe and Cross. He has spent centuries as a witch hunter, imprisoning those who break the truce between witches and humanity. The man who has acted as his support for the past 50 years, Priest Dolan 36th (Michael Caine) is due to retire, his place taken by Dolan 37th (Elijah Wood). After Dolan 36th appears to die under mysterious circumstances, Kaulder is out to hunt the witches who did it, in part with help from local witch Chloe (Rose Leslie, best known for her role as the girl who says “You know nothing Jon Snow” on Game Of Thrones).
There are a lot of good ideas embedded in this film, but the execution is all over the place. Urban fantasy focusing on a society of witches, hidden in plain sight! The witch council and the church working together to keep the world safe for good witches and humans alike! An immortal dude who doesn’t angst about the length of his life! These ideas, clearly brought about by a spark of genuine creativity and enthusiasm, are sort of murdered by the film’s inability to do any quality storytelling. Michael Caine’s character tells us about his relationship with Witch Hunter Toretto rather than letting us see it; Elijah Wood tells us about his tragic childhood; Wildling Witch tells us about her tragic childhood. I don’t believe that “show, don’t tell” ought to be a hard and fast rule, but if all you’re doing is telling with very little showing, don’t be surprised if your audience falls asleep. This is a premise and world that would have been better served by another medium, perhaps; television or comics, something that gives it the space and time to explore the people and ideas it introduces. As it stands, you get the sense that somebody somewhere did a lot of world-building that was cast aside during production in favor of expediency.
It’s clear where most of the creativity flourishes in this film, though, and that’s the aesthetics and visual design. Urban fantasy has made an impression primarily through vampires and werewolves, so a focus on witches (in a not-so-kid-friendly/not-Harry Potter way) feels a little fresh. The witch bar is a cross between a modern bar for twenty-somethings and a haunted house, the Witch-Queen’s weird evil tree lair is surprisingly visceral in appearance, and the Witch Queen herself is engrossingly gross. This is fortunate, as the (unfortunately rather poorly lit) visuals are all there is to keep one interested during some of the more forced and awkward scenes of the film.
What really slays this film is the complete and utter lack of tension. A conflict will be introduced, and then it is resolved, usually in that same scene, usually in under ten minutes. There is no drama, there is no uphill struggle, there is never a moment where there is room to doubt whether Vinny the D will succeed. He cannot die and is blatantly unconcerned about everything that happens around him. This would be fine, if there was a reliable audience surrogate for whom we could fear, but the role of audience surrogate jumps from Dolan 36th to Dolan 37th to Chloe without any particular rhyme or reason other than for something new to happen. It’s a bit like watching an educational television program: it has the capacity to be interesting, even a little funny at times, but you’re never engaged in it emotionally. Director Breck Eisner (remember Sahara?) attempts to overcome this lack of tension, but the fact that the conflicts are resolved almost immediately after being introduced defeats whatever efforts he makes. On a similar level, efforts to spice things up by introducing romantic tension fall flat because of how obviously forced they are.
What a film lacks in emotional engagement it can sometimes partially make up for in spectacle, but as the film spends a solid 75% of its runtime talking and investigating, we can’t even count on more than a few scenes of witch hunting or setting things on fire. Neither fantasy schlock nor well-developed film, The Last Witch Hunter is a disappointment at everything it attempts to do besides set up a sequel. There may be an intriguing version of this idea in somebody’s pile of writing projects somewhere, but it’s not the one that made it to the screen.
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