Season of the Witch, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, Seventh Son… now The Last Witch Hunter enters the hot-hot-hot genre of witch-hunting movies. I don’t know what started the craze, but this one is highly likely to be the fourth consecutive critical and box office bomb.
Damning with faint praise: among this quartet, The Last Witch Hunter is likely the best of the bunch. But not by much. Let’s call it the least worst.
Unlike the aforementioned, this film doesn’t focus on the mindless extermination of witches, who are the embodiment of pure evil. For some reason. In modern terminology, a “witch hunt” refers to the moral panic surrounding a misguided attempt to rid society of perceived enemies, something that I fear is sadly lost among most of the filmmakers behind these movies.
But not The Last Witch Hunter, which contains good and bad witches and even name drops Salem as a mistake (even if it kinda maybe wasn’t, if, you know, they actually were witches). Well, Kudos. Here, the Catholic Church and a poorly led coven of witches have reached a Men in Black–like agreement that allows the witchified to live among us as long as they don’t use their powers against mankind.
What can they use their powers for? The film gives us two examples: a cutaway shot of a witch florist using a spell to quickly grow some flowers, and then a blind baker (played by Isaach De Bankolé) who makes cupcakes out of worms, and then tricks his customers into thinking they’re delicious. Spooky stuff, and highly illegal according to the terms of this movie.
I’m getting ahead of myself. Witch Hunter opens in unspecified medieval times, where a group of Vikings led by Kaulder (Vin Diesel) embarks on a raid upon a witch fortress. Though Kaulder saves humanity by killing the Witch Queen, she leaves him with the curse of (drumroll please)… eternal life!
You see, all Kaulder wanted to do was die, so he could be with his wife and child, in a subplot continued from Gladiator. But now he’s forced to live forever. It’s the Witch Queen’s perfect revenge, with the minor inconvenience of an eternity of the now-immortal Kaulder killing her brethren.
There’s your setup; couple it with the truce between humanity and witchcraft and you can flash-forward to present-day, because it’s so much more interesting to see Vin Diesel confiscate some rune stones from a Goth girl on a transatlantic flight rather than a millennia of a kickass Viking slicing up zombie-witches with a flaming sword.
Much of the movie teams Diesel’s once-cool Viking with a good witch played by Game of Thrones’ Rose Leslie in the storyline of Bad Witch Threatens to Destroy Humanity. This is visualized by glops of CGI shooting up from a city center into the sky, a scene you’re familiar with from every superhero movie and action blockbuster from Man of Steel to R.I.P.D.
We neither understand the CGI goo (here, some bugs) nor the ticking clock time frame the hero has to stop it, nor how the hero is going to accomplish said goal. But someone, at some point, thought it looked cool, and the stakes (humanity) are as high as it’s gonna get, so we’re stuck with it.
But wait! The Last Witch Hunter also stars Michael Caine (!) as the 36th “Dolan” (yes, Dolan), a Catholic priest given the highly respected position of being Kaulder’s sidekick, and Elijah Wood as his replacement, the 37th. These two actors are simultaneously in the movie too little and too much: their too-few scenes are the most entertaining in the film, but the appropriate amount of screentime for them to have in this dreck would, of course, be zero.
The hulking Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, who was also used well in last year’s A Walk Among the Tombstones, makes for an imposing villain; too bad most of the onscreen evil is soaked up by Julie Engelbrecht’s CGI-infused Witch Queen, who looks like a cartoon version of the possessed Regan from The Exorcist.
One surprising thing about this action blockbuster is the confounding lack of action in the film. Diesel’s character has four brief fight scenes – two slash ‘em ups against the Witch Queen, a fisticuffs vs. Ólafsson’s brute, and a battle of some description with a giant CGI creature – which add up to about seven minutes of screen time.
Part of the reason behind that, I think, is director Breck Eisner’s handling of the action scenes: they’re incomprehensible. Unimaginatively staged and hyper-actively shot and edited, it’s impossible to follow what’s going on, and a relief when they’re over.
It’s a relief when the film is over, too. The Last Witch Hunter doesn’t take itself too seriously and has some nice moments of levity, particularly with Caine and Wood. But everything else is a been-there, done-that, seen-it-all-before drag.