Director Breck Eisner’s 2010 remake of George Romero’s The Crazies was far better made and considered than it might otherwise have been, so it makes sense that he’s managed to turn what might have been a pot-boiling action fantasy into a visually-arresting and fun vehicle for growling action man Vin Diesel.
As a contrast, take a look at 2011’s Season Of The Witch as an example of how badly an effects-heavy fantasy movie can go wrong; Nicolas Cage looked glum underneath his lank Cher wig, Ron Perlman was given little to do and the numerous sword fights and the screaming necromancer of a plot failed to add up to a hill of beans.
The Last Witch Hunter largely succeeds because it’s aware of its remit as a big daft multiplex filler, its performances are sparky and fun, and also because its engaging production design provides plenty of baroque visuals to keep things interesting. Vin Diesel plays Kaulder, an immortal witch hunter from ancient times (the last of the witch hunters, funnily enough) who’s still battling evil in present-day New York. As in Highlander, Kaulder’s immortality is as much a curse as a gift; adrift in time, he has no close friends other than Father Dolan (Michael Caine), the latest in a procession of holy men whose job is to serve as an Alfred Pennyworth to Kaulder’s Bruce Wayne.
Kaulder’s an old soul who’s embraced modernity. His expensive flat overlooking Central Park is full of priceless objects he’s collected on his witch hunting exploits down the ages, all arranged tastefully around a sleekly-designed pool table. Kaulder keeps an ancient runes in one pocket and a smartphone in the other; he’s as likely to tote a shotgun in the screaming face of evil as brandish a sword.
Eisner (and credited screenwriters Cory Goodman, Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless) imagine New York as a magical-realist labyrinth where white and black magic are still practiced behind the slick facade of corporate buildings and coffee chains. A cake store is a front for some kind of inexplicable magic circle involving maggots and butterflies. A plush private wine bar run by young witch Chloe (Game Of Thrones’ Rose Leslie) lets its customers get high on phantasmagorical cocktails.
It’s Kaulder’s job to keep a lid on the city’s underground magical element, punishing witches (male and female) who break the laws of an ancient council, the Axe and Cross. But when Father Dolan is suddenly gripped by a curse placed on his head, Kaulder has to join forces with Chloe and his new handler, the 37th Dolan (Elijah Wood) to discover who cast the evil spell.
What begins as an earthy riff on Robert E Howard – all beards, robes and flashing swords in a witch’s underground lair – soon gives way to a contemporary fantasy akin to Guillermo del Toro’s first Hellboy. Diesel, as ruggedly benign as always, presents himself as a kind of sword-wielding detective, examining crime scenes and apparently ordinary situations for the hidden presence of evil. His past has seen him rub shoulders with Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin, we’re told, but these day’s he spends more of his time sniffing out more mundane forms of black magic. One early scene set on a transatlantic flight sees him hunt down a young, irresponsible magic dabbler with little more than a glass of water and a paperclip.
To return to the Batman analogy established earlier, Diesel plays the Detective Comics version of the hero here – a character who can get on the trail of a bad guy just from the vague whiff of garlic and rotten crab apples. The Last Witch Hunter is at its most fun when it simply follows Kaulder around on his breadcrumb trail of clues, Breck Eisner cheerfully throwing in the odd modern fairytale flourish like a kid being lured in by a magical tree which grows gummy bears, or the flash of a hulking monster made from human skulls and the jagged remains of old trees.
The movie doesn’t give much of a role to Caine – he’s in the role of wise old mentor, yet again – nor does Elijah Wood have a great deal to do other than stammer and stare saucer-eyed off-camera as he did in The Lord Of The Rings. It’s Rose Leslie who steals the film as Chloe, the dream-invading Brit witch who could probably have shouldered the story all by herself. But this is Diesel’s vehicle, and there’s a sparky, pleasant chemistry between he and Leslie. Look out, too, for Joseph Gilgun in a small yet engagingly bonkers role.
Things grow less interesting as the mysteries give way to blazing battles of CGI fire, swords and buckshot, and it has to be said that all the sumptuous production design in the world can’t hide the fact that the final third is very grey and underlit. But then again, there’s enough imagination and chemistry in The Last Witch Hunter to make it worth recommending; its Highlander-like action feels like something from an era before studios started building universes and multi-picture franchises. Like Kaulder, The Last Witch Hunter is a movie from another time – which might be why it feels so unexpectedly refreshing.
The Last Witch Hunter is out in UK cinemas on the 21st October.
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