Written by: Matt Sazama & Burk Sharpless, Cory Goodman
Directed by: Breck Eisner
Starring: Vin Diesel, Rose Leslie, and Elijah Wood
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"But your story has no ending. You are the greatest soldier of the Axe and Cross, in a war between our world and the next."
I have to be candid about something: any movie that can boast Vin Diesel as The Last Witch Hunter has me pretty much in the bag, or at least has me eager to jump right into said bag. Don’t mistake this is some kind ironic affection for Diesel either: for one thing, it’s hard to laugh at a guy who will be the first person to laugh at himself. For another, Diesel has become one of our most charismatic and interesting action stars, especially since he’s essentially co-opted the “one for them, one for me” model adopted by directors alternating between studio products and more personal projects.
Only, in his case, it feels like they’re all for him, from the ludicrously entertaining Fast & Furious movies to the improbable Riddick franchise (you should not be surprised to learn that he will be starring in another xXx soon, too). Given his cachet, Diesel’s selectiveness almost feels remarkable: say what you want about him, but, for the most part, you get the sense that he does exactly what he wants to—even when that entails sporting silly facial hair in a movie called The Last Witch Hunter.
But he also gets to wield a flaming sword, thus rendering all of your arguments invalid pretty much immediately. During a prologue set in the 12th century, we learn that Kaulder (Diesel) was but one of many witch hunters during the outbreak of the plague, here attributed to the curses of an evil witch queen looking to eradicate humanity. Through the power of iron and fire, Kaulder slays the Queen, only to be cursed with immortality. This is initially presented as a sort of punishment since he’ll be haunted by the memories of his slain wife and daughter, but eight centuries apparently helps a guy get over it. Flash forward to 2015, and Kaulder has embraced his role as the sole hunter for a sect of priests charged with monitoring witch activity. By this point, this mostly amounts to keeping teenage wiccans in check and tracking down artifacts since mankind and witch-kind have reached a truce—at least until Kaulder’s retiring mentor/handler (Michael Caine) dies suspiciously and prompts the witch hunter to investigate.
The Last Witch Hunter is a curious example of a movie that seems to have a lot going for it but falls flat. I could sit here and tell you about the flaming swords, crazy beards, black magic, and creatures (it comes as no surprise that uber-nerd and D&D fanatic Diesel stars in a movie where he gets to spout dialogue about “Level-12 Warlocks” and shit), all of which tend to oversell how exciting The Last Witch Hunter actually is. Don’t get me wrong: the film moves at a reasonably nice clip and features wild great world-building concepts (such as an underground council that sentences offending witches to prison guarded by a sentient tree), but it just never seems to hit top gear. You feel like there should be more spark and life to a film that moves this breathlessly and packs so much craziness into 100 minutes.
That breathlessness is sort of a blessing and a curse, though, and it tends towards the latter once it sputters out with a deflating anticlimax. Many films at least feign some sense of distress, as if its hero may have to overcome insurmountable odds—The Last Witch Hunter simply proceeds with the understanding that everyone knows that nothing is going to stop Vin Fucking Diesel, least of all some shapeless CGI swarm. We’re left with a climax that, like the rest of the film, falls short of the loftier, weirder ambitions hinted at throughout. For a brief moment, The Last Witch Hunter threatens to become Ghosbusters, only with witches and Vin Diesel before it sends out that disappointing CGI blob for Michael Caine to scowl at for a few minutes instead.
This is not to say the film is completely bereft of imagination or intriguing designs. From the Witch Queen herself to an eccentric, blind witch working at a local bakery, there’s a whiff of a rich, lived-in world here, one that falls somewhere along the same continuum as the Blade and Hellboy films, where supernatural creatures walk the earth, more or less integrated with society. There’s a reluctance to actually settle into or embrace the utter weirdness of it all: everything is sped through and treated as such a matter of fact that The Last Witch Hunter feels sort of odd but not nearly odd enough. Its decision to take itself so deadly serious undercuts some of the fun: while it doesn’t exactly need everyone to mug for the cameras, it could at least use some of the unabashed, go-for-broke randomness of your average Vin Diesel Facebook post.
Without that, The Last Witch Hunter degenerates into the latest round of empty CGI spectacle ushered to the screen with rote pre-viz stylings that do little to separate it from similar films. Breck Eisner, who helmed the decent enough remake of The Crazies, is the director here, but the film feels more guided by predictable story beats punctuated by the occasional action sequence, most of which have been hampered by frenetic editing keeping a watchful eye towards preserving the film’s PG-13 rating. I won’t pretend to be aghast at this particular decision (if only because it’s predictable at this point that most studios will neuter anything in the hopes of squeezing more dollars out of it), but it’s nonetheless disappointing. Since The Last Witch Hunter doesn’t have the same sort of philosophical or theological musings as Witchfinder General and its ilk, the least it could have is some outlandish bloodletting and gore effects.
Even this is asking for too much, apparently, as most of the practical work is “augmented” by tacky CGI embellishments and much of the on-screen violence watered down. Diesel is left to pick up the slack; admittedly, he is one of the few people you could trust to elevate this sort of thing, but it requires an almost herculean effort here. Despite falling pretty short, it doesn’t come from a lack of effort: whether he’s tasked with teaming up with Elijah Wood (who takes up the mantle as Kaulder’s handler/priest for a sort of odd couple pairing that feels like a total joke) or Rose Leslie (starring as a benevolent witch whose unlikely alliance with Kaulder is an unexpected treat), he plunges headlong into the mythos of The Last Witch Hunter. No one will ever truly replace Tom Cruise, but Diesel has the same sort of appeal as a movie star: any time he’s on screen, you sense a conviction that he really believes in this shit, so much so that he almost convinces you to care about it.
Never is this more evident than during the film’s closing moments, when the characters drive off into the sunset of a possible sequel. You spend most of The Last Witch Hunter thinking they barely got this one movie to the screen intact, yet you don’t doubt for a second that Diesel will inevitably coax someone into making a follow-up. At some point, Universal is going to need him to sign on for Fast & Furious X, and the price will their cooperation in making sure Kaulder’s saga continues. You may laugh now, but rest assured that Vin Diesel will get the last laugh.
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