D: Breck Eisner / 106m
Cast: Vin Diesel, Rose Leslie, Elijah Wood, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Michael Caine, Julie Engelbrecht, Joseph Gilgun, Isaach De Bankolé, Rena Owen
The fantasy-horror movie has been less than entertaining in recent years, what with Van Helsing (2004), the Underworld series (2003-2012), and I, Frankenstein (2014) showing just how it shouldn’t be done. And yet despite these weary efforts we now have The Last Witch Hunter, a movie that remains as jumbled and ineffectual as its genre predecessors. It’s a project that began life as a featured screenplay in the 2010 Blacklist, and was originally set to be directed by Timur Bekmambetov back in 2012. But those plans fell through, and with the project being championed by Vin Diesel (an avid fan of fantasy role playing games), it made it into production once its star was free after the interrupted filming of Furious 7 (2015).
If the movie proves anything, it’s that scripts on the Blacklist aren’t always filmed as written – the original script by Cory Goodman was rewritten by Dante Harper and Melissa Walack before Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless finally ended up with the on-screen credit. Well, gentlemen, don’t be so proud, because if Goodman’s original script was really that good, then let’s make it clear: you guys went and ruined it.
It’s a movie that remains frustratingly remote from its audience throughout, and which fails to make its witchcraft-plunging-the-world-into-darkness storyline and plot even halfway exciting or dramatic. It’s a lot more serious than most, and not as po-faced as some of its competitors, but aside from one terrific joke involving a selfie, this is dour stuff that takes the end of the world as we know it and manages to make it about as threatening as flipping a pancake. And no matter how much Diesel glowers and frets, and no matter how much Ólafsson speaks of the world swallowed up by doom, we all know that whatever happens, Leslie is probably going to be the best bet for helping Kaulder – Diesel’s character – as he fights to discover who tried to kill his mentor and friend Father Dolan (Caine). (Oh, and we can be fairly certain that one character will prove to be less than they appear.)
Fantasy movies have a tough time now, what with the likes of Game of Thrones showing just how it can, and should, be done, and Diesel’s pet project suffers in much the same way as others of its ilk have done: in trying to set their bizarre plots and outlandish characters against the recognisable backdrop of modern times, they then go and wilfully ignore that backdrop in favour of elaborate special effects sequences where anything goes, and where any carefully established grounding in the here and now is catapulted right out of the narrative. If you’re going to have a showdown between good and evil, don’t hide it away in dingy basements or abandoned churches, where the viewer can ogle the impressive art direction or set design, but have it right out in the open: make magic a shocking, but real part of our daily existence (part of the fun of Ghost Busters (1984) is that everyone in New York sees the Stay-Puft Man).
And then there’s the plot itself, which sees Diesel’s barbarian warrior and his pals take on the Witch Queen (Engelbrecht) in pre-medieval times, only for them to fall one by one until it’s left to Kaulder to save the day. But in doing so she curses him to immortality – and provides a handy way for her to be resurrected in the future. And therein lies the movie’s first problem: Kaulder isn’t the last witch hunter, he’s the only witch hunter. But put that aside and then we have another problem: why is it that it always takes so long for the villain of the piece to be able to make a comeback? Here it’s eight hundred years, during which time Kaulder has played policeman in the witch community, and everything is predictably hunky dory (it all has something to do with the Witch Queen’s heart, which apparently, can still beat long after she’s dead – obviously).
Tasked to “Remember your death” by Father Dolan in the form of a handy clue made while he was being killed, Kaulder can’t just cast his mind back and remember it for himself. Instead he has to enlist the aid of a witch, the conveniently to hand Chloe (Leslie) who has to concoct a potion that will allow him to re-experience that fateful moment. Only that just leads to the next problem: he didn’t die, so why all this rigmarole? Could it be that old screenwriter’s fallback, padding? Or is it just a poorly conceived idea that nobody could fix during shooting (or wanted to)? There’s lots more that doesn’t add up or make sense, and it all goes to reinforce the idea that when it comes to fantasy, as long as the movie looks good – and The Last Witch Hunter does look good – then the story and the dialogue can be as ridiculous as it wants.
With a sequel already in pre-production, and despite a lukewarm reception at the box office, it’s clear that this is an attempt by Diesel to kick-start another franchise he can head up. But while he may be committed to telling further tales as Kaulder, he might just find, based on this “opener”, that not everyone will be as willing to follow him on that particular journey as they are when he gets behind a muscle car and trades macho stares with Dwayne Johnson.
Rating: 5/10 – genre conventions abound in this absurdly watchable yet majorly disappointing piece of fantasy, that at least sees its star smile more in one movie than he’s done in five (and a bit) Fast & Furious outings; derivative and lacking in real purpose, The Last Witch Hunter has neither the style nor the wit to help itself stand out from an already dispiriting crowd.