The UnPopular Opinion: The Last Witch Hunter
THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!
****SOME SPOILERS ENSUE****
Forgive me, but I don't get Vin Diesel. In interviews and behind the scenes footage, the gravel-voiced actor sounds and acts like a cool dude. A self-proclaimed geek, Diesel exudes the kind of charm that makes panties drop and high fives happen. On the big screen, Diesel has only found major success as an actor in the FAST AND FURIOUS franchise while his other films feel like series starters that fail at launch. Despite a decent fan base, the Riddick movies have not really clicked with mass audiences and his return to the XXX movies doesn't look like it will be able to salvage that project either. But, Vin Diesel is a passionate guy and because of his clout with Universal, he was able to make a movie he really wanted to make in THE LAST WITCH HUNTER. And, despite some nitpicks, it is actually a really enjoyable action movie.
Caught somewhere between an homage to HIGHLANDER and a variation of BLADE, THE LAST WITCH HUNTER looks too good and has too talented of a cast to have been discarded at the box office as quickly as it was back in October of last year. Maybe it was the all too familiar trailers or the lack of any major action set-pieces, but THE LAST WITCH HUNTER was universally panned by critics despite scoring decent reviews with audiences. The problem with THE LAST WITCH HUNTER, scripted by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless (GODS OF EGYPT) and directed by Breck Eisner (SAHARA, THE CRAZIES), is that it doesn't outwardly present what the film is about. The marketing campaign could have done so much more and showed audiences that this was a dark yet fun time waster. There are countless worse ways to spend one hundred minutes of your time and many of them would not command your attention the way this movie does.
What works best in THE LAST WITCH HUNTER is the supporting cast. It is difficult to go wrong with Michael Caine in any film and here he is joined by Elijah Wood, Rose Leslie, and a small part featuring Preacher's Joseph Gilgun. There is an air of humor that permeates some of the lines here, but they mostly play this film deadly serious. But, Vin Diesel injects her performance as Kaulder with some lightness that is unexpected for a character supposedly hunting the evil that cursed him and killed his family hundreds of years earlier. THE LAST WITCH HUNTER hints at a massive fictional universe for these supernatural beings that includes laws and councils for the control and monitoring of witchcraft. Like BLADE, THE LAST WITCH HUNTER is able to condense a quick explanation of these rules without making it the primary focus of the tale. Within the first half an hour, you understand the stakes and repercussions of what Kaulder is protecting. Because THE LAST WITCH HUNTER doesn't spend too much time on justifying this world allows us to tag along for the ride.
They key to enjoying THE LAST WITCH HUNTER is to stop pretending it is something that it is not, namely a masterpiece. Movies can be enjoyable without being Shakespeare. Hell, movies can be enjoyable without making a whole lot of sense. THE LAST WITCH HUNTER relies on suspension of disbelief. This is a fictional world of witches and monsters that does not play by the same logic as other movies about the same creatures. With that in mind, we cannot heap expectations on character actions by comparing it to similarly themed films. I can draw connections between Kaulder and Maximus in GLADIATOR, Connor MacLeod in HIGHLANDER, and even Deckard in BLADE RUNNER. There is a lot of BLADE and a little UNIVERSAL SOLDIER, too, but in no way am I going to say that because Jean Claude Van Damme or Wesley Snipes did something that this film is lesser or superior to them.
Breck Eisner does deliver some great visuals here, namely anything involving the Witch Queen, which helped make me more entertained. THE LAST WITCH HUNTER is not scary enough to be a horror film and is too frightening to be anything else. It is likely that middle ground that prevented it from financial success. Eisner's frame composition is brooding and atmospheric and makes the best use of Vin Diesel's screen presence. The special effects, for the most part, are seamless. The scene in the Dolan's apartment as it transforms as well as the sequence with the witches who use glamours to make themselves beautiful work as well as any other effects I have seen in recent years. The closing battle may have relied too heavily on CGI, but I can say the opposite for the opening assault on the Witch Queen which is as visually strong as anything I have seen in recent memory.
There are double crosses, twists, and a couple of characters who don't quite work, but the overall picture of THE LAST WITCH HUNTER is worthy watching. Diesel is a convincing immortal and I almost wish we spent more time with his ancient Viking apparel versus his nondescript contemporary appearance. Rose Leslie plays a love interest who never falls in love, but she is spunky and cute and earned every bit of her screen time. Elijah Wood dives deep into a character that otherwise could have been a throwaway role while Michael Caine inhabits his part as if he were still playing Alfed in Christopher Nolan's DARK KNIGHT films. The cast in this film is surprisingly small which lends an almost intimate experience, words you probably would never have expected someone to utter in a review of THE LAST WITCH HUNTER
THE LAST WITCH HUNTER does not make demands on the audience but instead presents a world for the viewer to follow. You can choose whether you will allow yourself to go along for the ride or if you would rather nitpick the film's shortcomings in comparison to greater movies. Ultimately, Vin Diesel does in THE LAST WITCH HUNTER what he has failed to do in RIDDICK or any of the FAST AND FURIOUS films: he has created a character worth investing in. Kaulder is immortal but by film's end he is as human as any of us. Taking away the strength that made him a threat to his enemies has now made them the ultimate threat to him. It is a shame we likely will not see a sequel to THE LAST WITCH HUNTER as it leaves off at the perfect point for the next tale to begin. In an age where we are inundated by unwanted sequels and undeserving follow-ups, this is one film that should continue it's story.
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