Starring Vin Diesel, Rose Leslie, Elijah Wood
Directed by Breck Eisner
Walking into a movie marketed as “Vin Diesel hunting witches,” it’s not unreasonable to say that you probably have a good idea of what you’re getting yourself into. There will likely be a handful of paper-thin characters, clunky dialogue galore, and — of course — lots of explosive action. With this knowledge in mind, it always baffles me to see critics who so flagrantly criticize Diesel’s films for delivering on such uninspired expectations. At this point, we all remember the xXx and Riddick films well enough to know what this guy is going to unapologetically serve up in his genre efforts. You would think the majority of viewers would either just agree to take the ride as is, temper their expectations in advance, or hop off the bus altogether at this point in time.
Alas, The Last Witch Hunter is still very much the kind of movie that critics will love to rip apart. It features the excessive CGI, heavily expository scripting, and an overall air of silliness that will provide many opportunities for verbosity-laden tirades about how mainstream movies continue to grow more lifeless and contrived. People would do better to lighten up when approaching a film like this though, which is hardly great, but is most certainly not the atrocity it will be made out to be. Truth be told, The Last Witch Hunter is actually quite spirited in its execution. Heavily flawed, it is, but it’s also pretty damn fun.
The film tells of Kaulder (Diesel), a 13th century witch hunter who loses his family to a powerful plague curse placed upon the people of his land. With a crew of other hunters, Kaulder strikes back by infiltrating a den of witches and killing the Witch Queen (a wonderfully made up Julie Engelbrecht), but is ultimately cursed with immortality in the process. Forced to live out centuries of loss and isolation, Kaulder spends his days in the present policing the world for witches who have broken the longstanding truce of peace between our kind and theirs, all under the watch of the Axe and Cross organization. After his current Axe and Cross appointed handler is stricken by a powerfully malicious curse, Kaulder fears that someone may be seeking to unleash the Witch Queen once again. He sets off on a mission to uncover the source of this new evil plan, receiving some help in his new handler (Wood) and a young witch named Chloe with “dream walking” abilities (Leslie, “Game of Thrones”).
If you cannot already tell, the story here teeters into expectedly silly territory in its particular fantasy tropes at points. In the present day, witches openly interact with the general public, but are apparently living in constant fear of Kaulder, the one living witch hunter in all the world. It’s a goofy setup for Diesel in this fantastical world on the surface, but the mythology actually becomes quite engaging if you let yourself buy into it. There are touches of Underworld, Harry Potter, and even a dash of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” here, and Esiner does an admirable job establishing his own unique world here in its visual and narrative aspects. This world is not as intricately realized as those in the aforementioned works, but genre fans looking for a night of easy-on-the-mind fantastical amusement will find a lot to like here. Story-wise, it is evident that many hands have handled the script over its development, but ultimately it is refreshing to see an original fantasy story like this pop up amidst an overabundance of adaptations and rehashes. As it unfolds, it becomes clear that The Last Witch Hunter also has the potential to develop more committed fantasy elements in future sequels, and ultimately, that is really what this film is trying to make happen. Again, it has no qualms about appearing so transparent in its franchise-centric intentions.
That’s not to say that this looming intent hampers one’s enjoyment of the film, because it still is more fun that most people might expect it to be. The fight scenes are well choreographed, showcasing Diesel’s strong suit as the action-packed leading man. The major action sequences are also decently executed for the most part, save for some shoddy CGI and a barrage of dizzying and rather dark quick-cut edits in the final battles. The CGI is not nearly as offensive as might be expected, although some effects used for a mystical witch prison guard known as The Sentinel get a bit cartoonish for my liking. In any case, you get just about what you might expect here as far as the quality of visuals and action go, although there is a particularly noteworthy scene involving a man lodged in a tree that features surprisingly well executed make-up and practical effects.
Vin Diesel gives an expectedly “Vin Diesel” performance here as Kaulder, nailing some of the snappier moments of dialogue, but struggling to convincingly emote otherwise. Heavier moments for Kaulder that involve clunky exposition or overtly emotional turns of plot provided some of the film’s more unintentional moments of humor. Elsewhere though, many of the quips and one-liners, particularly as delivered by Leslie, Wood, and Michael Caine (whose presence here still baffles me), work to keep the air reasonably and effectively light here. Wood particularly has some great comedic moments with Diesel early in the film, but vanishes for most of the rest of it and is weighed down by a rather ridiculous third act twist. The ultimate letdown though is the underutilization of Leslie in the film’s latter moments; I was particularly left wishing Chloe would have come into her own as an ass-kicking, spell-wielding witch, as her contribution to the final showdown against the Witch Queen and her latent coven is less than thrilling here. Granted, the final act is rather disjointed and indistinct altogether, and further development of interest for Chloe appears to be put on hold until a potential sequel is greenlit. Still, while Leslie is punchy and enjoyable in the film throughout, never truly reduced to a distressed damsel role, it would have been nice to see her land a well-placed punch.
On this note, I have seen the film criticized thus far for apparently reveling in a stew of misogynistic themes masked by a fantasy-laden plot about a man killing evil women. This is an understandable argument to an extent, I suppose, but I never once sensed any flagrantly sexist offenses here. The film is – at its most offensive – a cookie-cutter product of studio execs seeking to bank on a potential franchise featuring its well-known male star. Sure, this approach never usually results in the highest kinds of art or greater statements on the world around us, but The Last Witch Hunter never pretends to be anything more than the overblown fantasy-action tale it is. This attribute is hardly a signifier of the perceived “sexist agenda” that has been mined by some critics; at its core, this film is far too harmlessly shallow to ever be so malicious.
The Last Witch Hunter will certainly not be the critical darling of the fall season, and it is not the most memorable fantasy-action entry of the last few years, but it is a commendably original genre effort that mainstream audiences will likely enjoy. Admittedly, Eisner’s latest effort suffers most at the hands of a rushed and occasionally inane final act, and the drearier moments here are indeed enough to affect one’s overall view of the film. In all earnestness though, I do still see promise in Kaulder and Chloe’s continued story as a franchise; I’d be quite curious to see their characters further developed (especially Leslie’s) and the fantastical world beneath the surface here explored to a greater degree. Fervent witch aficionados and fantasy hounds are sure to feel the same way.