Vin Diesel’s character may have been cursed with life, but The Last Witch Hunter‘s future franchise dreams may be doomed with death.
Since the very beginning, you notice there’s a problem with The Last Witch Hunter. It’s not the alarming age difference between Diesel and Leslie’s character or even their real life age difference. It isn’t the fact that this feels like a film trying desperately to mimic that its origin comes from a comic book universe. It definitely isn’t that you already know they are going to attempt to create a franchise from this film, with the inevitable threat of sequels. The first thing you notice is the opening fight scene, where the film has either been cropped or just shot to a close up that always focuses on Vin Diesel’s face. Understandable since this film’s biggest draw is Diesels’s physique and soothing growl-speak, but no one wins when the scenes feel so claustrophobic that it is impossible to decipher the movements in the muddled action sequences. That is just the first fifteen minutes of the film.
It’s not all pits and pendulums in this clichéd piece of work. There is a refreshing use of prosthetic make-up occasionally used on the witches when revealing their true appearance that makes a great counterbalance to the film’s overuse of barely middling computer graphics. The Last Witch Hunter would have stood out boldly from its many genre siblings if they used more practical special effects that complemented the often beautiful set pieces. There are often gorgeously symmetrical shots filled with vibrant color tones that might make you momentarily forget the dreadfulness of every other aspect of the film. If they had relied on a much more natural approach to their special effects, the film could have at least feinted a semblance of artistry. Instead, they chose to bombard the film with copious amounts of CGI, drowning out any chance at originality and leaving the film in familiar, tirelessly-treaded territory.
If this over-stylization comes off as feeling familiar, like maybe Constantine-like, that’s because it had been recreated several times a year for the last 15 years. With such memorable gems like I, Frankenstein, Dracula Untold, Priest, and so on and so forth. The oversaturated nature of these films (not just when it comes to their visual style), makes this story, and every one like it, beyond predictable. Here’s the formula: Add one unwilling/attractive hero, take away his family, add a villain with legions of minions, and a betrayal you see coming even before the film starts, and you have The Last Witch Hunter. The characters are shallow, but luckily the plot had holes deep enough to bury them in and turn them into nothing more than attractive talking faces. The story would have been the only thing that could save this cursed film, but even with three writers (all of which had part in some of the films I mentioned earlier), they weren’t able to conjure any cinematic magic. Instead, they serve as a reminder that the past will always come back to haunt you.
The plot is a bewildering blunder, expecting you to jump right into it even though you’re never sure you understand the stories progression. The characters all come off as hollow, and their decisions are never rationalized in the realm of sanity. Even the forced relationship between Diesel and Leslie is incomprehensible because she sternly hates him one moment but is overwhelmingly smitten with him the next despite him being the cause of every single bad thing that has happened to her in the span of 24 hours. She may have lost everything, but at least she might get a chance to sleep with this 800-year-old witch hunter that is responsible for the systematic oppression of her entire witch race. Fair trade, I’m sure.
Beyond that, the biggest detriment to the cohesion of the story is that there is never any sense of danger with Vin Diesel’s character Kaulder. He is immortal and all but unbeatable, so there is no build-up of suspense because you already know who is going to always come out victorious. Sure, he may take a hit or two, get burnt beyond recognition, or even shatter his own bones, but his immortality will make sure he is fine again in seconds. By the time any sense of vulnerability is shown, we have passed the point of caring, but luckily close enough to the end of the film.
Director Breck Eisner, who managed to improve on the original with his remake of The Crazies, has shown us that he can create an atmospheric suspense/horror film with great make-up. His successes in The Crazies could have been easily adopted in The Last Witch Hunter and it would have elevated the film to something other than the big budget fodder it comes off. What you get instead is Vin Deisel and Elijah Wood’s characters battling enemies with one-liners that seldom land on their target.
Setting a new precedent, Vin Diesel isn’t the best part of this film. His natural charm is still somewhat intact, his low, gravelly voice is still enchanting, and his bravado is very much on overdrive. Altogether, you get a character that requires more emotional depth and range than Diesel was able to provide with his signature skill set. The true hero of this film, aside from Michael Caine’s narrating voice, is the extremely talented Rose Leslie. Leslie goes beyond her ferocity in Game of Thrones and continues delivering on the promise she made in her debut film Honeymoon, by delivering another intense and spirited performance. Unfortunately, her spellbinding performance isn’t enough to save the irreparably hexed The Last Witch Hunter.
RATING: ★★★ (3/10 stars)