Tuesday, November 17, 2015

By Iron and Fire (and CGI): The Last Witch Hunter

Vin Diesel in The Last Witch Hunter. (Photo: Scott Garfield/Lionsgate)

I’m stepping into the ring for The Last Witch Hunter. There is a large demographic of people who will be baffled, annoyed, or bored to tears by this out-of-the-blue fantasy action picture, but I am not one of them. I am part of the small subset of moviegoers who are thrilled by weird, brave, original material like this, and who are excited by the idea of a Vin Diesel action vehicle that doesn’t involve souped-up Detroit muscle cars and product placement for shitty beer. Is The Last Witch Hunter a perfect movie? Hell no. Is it an unabashedly dorky fantasy adventure that delivers exactly what it advertises? Absolutely. You can hate this film all you want, but you can’t call it dishonest.

In what can best be described as an update of 1986’s Highlander in everything but name, The Last Witch Hunter introduces Vin Diesel as Kaulder, a 13th century warrior charged with destroying the Witch Queen, whose evil magic has cursed the world with bubonic plague. Kaulder succeeds, through a bitchin’ action sequence in which he wields a flaming sword, in killing the Queen – but not before she curses him with eternal life. The story transitions to the present day, where Kaulder continues to hunt the remnants of her coven, who hide among us in the streets and bars and loft apartments of New York. He’s aided by a society called the Axe and Cross, who assign a priest called a “Dolan” to serve Kaulder in his work and record his adventures. Michael Caine (of course) plays the 36th Dolan, who is killed on his retirement day, and must be avenged by Kaulder and the new Dolan, 37 (Elijah Wood).

This metric tonne of exposition and original lore is delivered with more dexterity than could possibly be expected from a film with no existing comic book or novel to base it on. (The only other recent film to pull this off was John Wick, but Witch Hunter doesn’t quite reach the same heights of excitement.) I’m truly amazed that Witch Hunter wasn’t released into the morass of post-holiday schlock that has become Hollywood’s annual dumping ground (what the folks at RedLetterMedia charitably call “Fuck You, It’s January”). It’s really a testament to the strength of Vin Diesel’s “secret” nerd cred – it’s widely known that he’s an unapologetic Dungeons and Dragons fanatic, among many other niche pursuits – and his ability to leverage his stardom to push the kinds of projects he wants to do into theatres. How else can you explain Witch Hunter? Or The Chronicles of Riddick, for that matter?

Rose Leslie. Vin Diesel, and Elijah Wood in The Last Witch Hunter.

No matter how you justify its existence, though, the fact remains that Witch Hunter is far more coherent and entertaining than it has any right to be. I expected the story to collapse under the weight of all the lore being spat from the screen, but the details were engaging, not prohibitive. The film is chock full of visual variety, zipping from one fantastical locale to the next, and each new revelation about Kaulder’s life, the secrets of his craft, or the nature of his foes made me hungry for more. The cast was well-used, too, and although the bare minimum of plot was created for them to run through, they’re allowed to play to their strengths (there’s a particularly resonant scene early on between Kaulder and his Dolan, whom he calls “Kid”, in which Caine is given more to chew on with his dialogue than Christopher Nolan, on his most generous day, has ever provided him). Wood is perfectly oily as the young upstart Dolan, and Rose “You Know Nothing, Jon Snow” Leslie is perfectly serviceable as a young witch whose “dreamwalking” abilities become integral to the story. The Kaulder character was more than a little reminiscent of Geralt from The Witcher series, in everything from his occupation to his personality, and that speaks volumes about how fascinating this fantasy character archetype can be. You can bet Diesel has put just as many hours into The Witcher 3 as I have.

But as I’ve said, The Last Witch Hunter resembles nothing so much as Highlander, which lives on in the hearts of sentimental fantasy geeks everywhere. The similarities between the two are striking: both feature an immortal hero who carries centuries of experience into the modern era (and who lives in a kickass apartment filled with priceless artifacts and mementos), who is motivated by the unjust slaying of his cute little medieval family, and who turns to one of the leads from The Man Who Would Be King for mentorship and guidance (Sean Connery in Highlander as the Scottish-Egyptian-Spaniard, Ramirez, and Michael Caine as the 36th Dolan). I have always enjoyed Vin Diesel, and never more than when he’s enjoying himself – as he clearly is here – but it’s indisputable that while he’s no subtle thespian, he’s worlds better than Highlander’s Christopher Lambert, whose awfulness is so overwhelming it becomes the fascinating conundrum at the heart of the film. Of course, there’s no Freddie Mercury on Witch Hunter’s soundtrack (although Steve Jablonsky’s score is serviceable), and ├ôlafur Darri ├ôlafsson as the evil warlock Belial is a poor substitute for Clancy Brown’s bug-eyed growling immortal, Kurgen.

Witch Hunter’s script, whose credit is shared between Cory Goodman, Matt Sazama, and Burk Sharpless, is weighed down by convenience and goofy dialogue. The film’s small cast is good, but not excellent. Its action sequences are kinetic, but occasionally incomprehensible. Its reliance on CGI is irritating, but the result is often creative and beautiful. It’s an odd duck of a film, appearing out of nowhere (have you seen it advertised anywhere?) and disappearing just as quickly. It’s too bad, though, because I see too many films not to celebrate the unique and risky ones, and if you’re a fan of Vin Diesel, elemental magic, swordfights, Rose Leslie, or any combination thereof, this is definitely one to seek out.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

No comments:

Post a Comment