Tuesday, October 27, 2015

It Came From The Cineplex: The Last Witch Hunter

The Last Witch Hunter was written by Cory Goodman, Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless (it took THREE people to write this?) and directed by Breck Eisner.

Eisner (whose pappy Michael Eisner used to be the head of Disney) previously directed Sahara, which was pretty meh, and The Crazies remake, which I enjoyed quite a bit. I'm starting to think maybe The Crazies was a fluke.

Vin Diesel stars as Kaulder, the titular witch hunter, and is obviously his attempt at setting up yet a fourth franchise for himself (he's got the Fast & Furious films of course, along with the Riddick series and xXx, which he's threatening to revive). Does he succeed? Well, I wouldn't advise him to buy that luxury yacht just yet. The film barely pulled in $10 million in its opening weekend, against its $70 million budget. Despite this less-than-impressive debut, Diesel insists that Lionsgate wants him to make a sequel.

The Last Witch Hunter is yet another in a series of high-concept PG-13 fantasy/action films that have littered the cineplex the past ten years or so. If you've seen Season Of The Witch, Dylan Dog: Dead Of Night or Seventh Son, then you've seen this one.

Diesel struts across the screen dressed much like a would-be Blade The Vampire Hunter, substituting witches for blood suckers. He's got the same black leather duster and even wears his sword on his back! He's also got a cool car, an arsenal of supernatural weapons, and even a Whistler-like handler/sidekick! All just like Blade!

Unfortunately for someone who calls himself a witch hunter, he does very little actual witch hunting in this film. Diesel's Kaulder character is more like a witch parole officer, making sure they stick to the letter of their law. He's a kinder, gentler witch hunter for our touchy-feely times.

If you ever wondered to yourself, "I wonder what the Blade films would have been like if instead of killing vampires, he arrested them if they attacked humans," then this is the movie you've been waiting for.

This was a very ugly looking movie. Even the daylight scenes were dark and washed out, and the nighttime scenes were practically impenetrable. I'm not sure if the film was deliberately made like this or the projector bulb at my local cineplex was about to burn out. I'd need to see it in another theater to find out for sure, and that ain't happening.

It's a given that this was never going to be great cinema, but it could have been a really good B-movie. Alas, there's no fun here to be had. The film plods across the screen, playing by rules the audience doesn't fully understand, showing us a world that seems fleshed out but is sadly never closely examined.


The Plot:
We begin eight hundred years ago, when the Witch Queen plans to unleash a deadly plague to wipe out humanity. A group of vaguely Viking-esque warriors surround the Witch Queen's tree house (?) and attack. A warrior named Kaulder (played by Vin Diesel) attacks the Queen and stabs her with his flaming steel sword. With her dying breath she curses Kaulder with eternal life.

Cut to the present day, where Kaulder is still alive and well and hunting witches. Well, not really. Sometime over the years there was a truce between humanity and witch-kind. They're now free to govern themselves as long as they don't use their magic against humans. Kaulder is more of a cop, who makes sure the witches are towing the line.

Kaulder's handler and aide is a priest known only as Alfred, er, the 36th Dolan (played by Michael Caine). The 36th Dolan is retiring, and prepping the twitchy young 37th (played by Elijah Wood, in a role that has to be several notches below The Lord Of The Rings) to take his place 

The next day, Kaulder is informed that the 36th Dolan died in his sleep. Kaulder and 37 investigate the death and find traces of magic. He tracks the magic to a bar run by a good witch named Wendy, er, I mean Chloe (played by Rose Leslie, of Game Of Thrones fame). There he's attacked by Belial (subtle!), a male witch who longs for the old days and wants to return the Witch Queen to power.

Kaulder discovers that 36 isn't actually dead, he's just been cursed into a coma. He can only be revived if the witch who cursed him (which would be Belial) dies. Kaulder then teams up with Chloe to find Belial so he can save his friend, as well as stop the Witch Queen from being resurrected. 

He eventually finds out that the Dolans kept the Witch Queen's still beating heart, and have kept it secret for the past eight hundred years. Their reason? Kaulder's immortality is tied to the heart. If it's destroyed, he dies, and he'll no longer be their order's weapon against witch-kind. I guess that makes a certain twisted sense.

As you might expect, the Witch Queen is resurrected and takes Kaulder's immortality back for herself. It seems she was just storing it inside him, waiting for the day she'd return. 37 also announces he's on the Witch Queen's side, because Kaulder killed his witch parents (somehow they had a child with no powers).

36 is revived when Belial is killed. 37 is betrayed and murdered by the Witch Queen. Kaulder manages to kill the Queen for the second time. He regains his immortality, but is talked out of destroying the heart by 36, who gives him the "You're our weapon against witches" speech. You'd think he wouldn't fall for that a second time, but there you go.

Kaulder then partners with Chloe, resisting the temptation to say, "This is the start of a beautiful friendship." And of course we see the still-beating heart of the Witch Queen, safely tucked away in Kaulder's safe, where it'll never cause problems for anyone every again.

 Vin Diesel is a self-admitted Dungeons & Dragons fan (people still play that game?), and reportedly said that Kaulder is based on the witch hunting character he plays in the game (who he named Melkor). So you know what that means! Yep, this is a vanity project!

Admittedly it's been a long time since I played D&D, but I don't remember there being a witch hunter class in the game. Maybe things have changed in the decades since I last played.

 At the beginning of the movie, Kaulder confiscates three magic gems from an inexperienced young witch. She stole the gems and stuffed them in her pocket, unaware that when they come in contact with one another they cause the weather to turn violent. Kaulder explains this to her (and the audience) as he separates the stones. He then immediately wraps them in a cloth and stuffs them in his pocket, where they'll surely touch one another again.

 Michael Caine apparently needed a house payment. He shows up on set as the 36th Dolan just long enough to pick up his paycheck. His character is in the film for maybe fifteen minutes, tops. He appears for a few minutes at the beginning and the end, literally sleeping through the middle of the film in a magic-induced coma!

 When Kaulder investigates the scene of the 36th Dolan's death, he explains that witch magic comes from the four elements. Whenever a witch uses magic it leaves behind a residue that can be detected.

He then uses air and fire to look for magic residue, finds none, and then apparently satisfied, he starts to leave the scene. Um... OK, so you tested for air and fire. What about earth and water?

He finally does sprinkle some dirt around, which detects some magical residue. But he only does so after he notices some kind of dead flies on the floor. He doesn't even follow his own rules!

 Singing Sword Alert! 

For the past ten or fifteen years, any time a sword appears in a movie, it "sings." That is, any time we see a character pick up a sword, or heck, even if the sword is just lying on a table, there's an audible "ringing" sound effect, almost like someone struck a tuning fork.

Nowhere is that more evident than in this movie. At one point Kaulder holds up his sword and stares meaningfully at it, and it "sings" so loudly it almost drowns out his dialog!

 Credit where credit's due: There was exactly one clever element in this movie— the whole "storing immortality inside Kaulder" thing.

In the past, the Witch King "curses" Kaulder with immortality right before she dies. Then when she's resurrected in the present day she steals her immortality back from him. Apparently using him as a storage unit was all part of her plan, to prevent her immortality from being lost forever.

A nice little plot twist, and something I've not seen done before.

 In addition to being immortal, Kaulder is also invulnerable. Yep, just like Wolverine, his cuts, bruises and even broken bones heal in seconds.

When are filmmakers going to learn that heroes who can't be hurt are boring? It's impossible to build up any suspense when your hero can't be harmed and is never in any danger. That's why even Superman has his kryptonite weakness. 

The only time there's any slight tension in the film is when Kaulder briefly loses his immortality. Not to worry though! In this universe, immortality is apparently like a track meet baton, and can be passed from person to person that easily.

 This is some heavy duty nitpicking, but here goes. The title of the film is The Last Witch Hunter, implying that Kaulder is the last in a long line of magical enforcers. But in the film we learn that throughout history he's always been the only one. There's no vast army of magical enforcers, it's just one guy. The Sole Witch Hunter would have been a more apt title. 

The Last Witch Hunter could have been a classic little B-movie, but it's lacks any sense of fun and is typical of the CGI fantasy films which have littered the cineplex the past few years. Vin Diesel's convinced it's the start of a whole new franchise, but I wouldn't hold my breath if I was him. I give it a C+.

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