Vin Diesel has always done his best work when providing his voice to iron robots and giant trees, characters that have very limited dialogue and emotive capabilities. When it comes to fleshing out a live character, there’s a distinct disconnect in his interpretation that bleeds through to the audience. Okay, let’s be frank — if it weren’t for that deep, gravelly voice of his, I’m not sure he’d have much of a career outside of fast cars and alien bounties. The Fast and Furious franchise (in association with Riddick) made Diesel a star and is the only thing (aside from his voice-over work) that keeps him afloat in Hollywood. Without it, he’s left wading among the depths of mediocre to terrible projects. Then again, if we were to remove him from the equation, would he still be the considered at fault for the failure of his non-Fast roster of films? As evidenced by The Last Witch Hunter, there may just be more to it than that.
Diesel is the title character, Kaulder, a viking-type character who lost his wife and daughter to the Witch Queen’s (Julie Engelbrecht) plague somewhere around the 13th century. He, together with a band of other viking-type characters, track the Witch Queen to her lair, where they quickly dispatch of her minions, leaving Kaulder and the Witch Queen, all molested by plastered makeup and creepy insects, to face off Mano-a-mano. Like any decent witch, before she’s dispatched by a fiery sword, the Witch Queen curses Kaulder with eternal life so that he may suffer his family’s death forever. Cut ahead a few centuries to modern day New York, where Kaulder continues to hunt witches who violate a code that’s recently been developed by a high council of witches and a patriarch of priests (known as the Dolan) to keep order among witches and prevent mass human destruction. Any witch who violates this treaty is imprisoned in some deep dark hole somewhere. It all sounds well and good until Kaulder’s old partner — and I guess scribe, or historian? — Dolan 36th (Michael Caine), retires, only to be found dead the next day. When Kaulder discovers it’s all a trick of dark magic, he’s got only a couple of days to find the witch that cast the spell in order to save his colleague and friend.
Aside from the obvious unknowns that hinder the acceptance of the overall mythology, the description makes this sound like a decent movie that, if done correctly, could have gone one of two ways: it would either raise the bar as a grand adventure, or embrace its 80s B-movie camp. Unfortunately, the film does neither; instead it sucks all of what could have been fun about it and turns it into a sour gumball that never finds its flavor. By that, I mean, the filmmakers try so hard to give the people (or the producers) what they want, they forgot to have fun with what they were creating. So instead of developing a whimsically dark fantasy, the quest director Breck Eisner delivers is stale and uninterested. Boredom thus jumps off the screen, not only from Diesel, who always seems like he’s half asleep to begin with, but from Elijah Wood, who plays Dolan 37th, Dolan 36th’s ingenue. Wood is a tremendous actor when he wants to be, but here, he’s simply going through the motions, unwilling to go above Diesel’s low-set bar.
It takes a fantasy alum to bring some intrigue and whimsy to the proceedings. Rose Leslie burns red hot as Chloe, a dream walker who helps Kaulder learn the truth about the fateful night he was cursed. Leslie has the fire and spunk to match her beauty, and quickly becomes the only intriguing character in the film. So much so, I have to wonder what the film would have been like had it been told from her perspective, focusing on the dream walking aspect of her powers and lessening Diesel’s role to a supporting player. In some cases, a presence like this might have helped raise the script above its obvious flaws, however, even with the help of Michael Caine turning all of his lines into pure silk (including one line that becomes the highlight of the film), Eisner can’t capture that rare moment.
There’s a good way and a bad way to build a world, and Eisner chose the bad way, delivering line after line of heavily unnatural exposition that panders to the audience. The biggest faux pas is the randomly placed voice-over from Caine explaining the rules of the game for us, even though the same information eventually comes out in pieces later on. It goes to show how inexperienced everything feels. If only the producers had the foresight to spend even half the budget they used for the special effects on the script, the movie may have found its voice. The visual effects are far from lazy. From the raging storm at the beginning to the Witch Queen’s makeup, it’s all incredibly life-like, creepy and stunning, and makes you wish all aspects of the film had been thought out with as much enthusiasm and care. But visual effects does not a movie make, and when filmmakers tarnish a decent idea with a poor script and a lead character who may have been better had they removed his tongue to keep his dialogue to the bare minimum, a film like the The Last Witch Hunter is born.
My Grade: B-
Next week, new movies include Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocolypse and Our Brand Is Crisis. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.