Monday, 9 November 2015

Movie Review: The Last Witch Hunter (2015)



I’ve talked before about using immortality to add flavour to a romantic story, but here is where we get into one of the many offshoots of that idea: The immortal hero. Yet another example of the chosen one narrative at work, this usually involves a seemingly ordinary person who has been granted abilities that forces them to live longer for some greater purpose. In any bog standard story, this usually involves some kind of great evil that needs to be fought. Really, unless your name is Joss Whedon, it is extremely unlikely that someone will be able to pull anything all that new or compelling out of the concept. This kind of sucks, considering the idea is even older than the undying souls that utilize it. But hey, I could be wrong; maybe this new Vin Diesel vehicle could set itself apart from the myriad of fantasy stories out there, let alone the ones dealing with eternal life, and create something truly memorable. *sigh* Let’s just get into today’s kindling already: This is The Last Witch Hunter.

The plot: After an encounter with the Witch Queen (Julie Engelbrecht), witch hunter Kaulder (Vin Diesel) is cursed to live forever. 800 years later, in modern-day New York City, he is under the employ of The Axe And Cross, a society that helps to keep the peace between the humans and the witches. When his handler the 36th Dolan (Michael Caine) is attacked, Kaulder and the 37th Dolan (Elijah Wood) go on the hunt for the witch responsible, bringing Kaulder face-to-face with his own past while the fate of the world hangs in the balance.

The acting is actually a lot better than I was expecting. Vin Diesel is one of those actors that honestly doesn’t get the kind of recognition that he should for his acting chops. Unless we’re talking about his voice acting; then, he’s responsible for some truly amazing fan favourites like The Iron Giant and Groot from Guardians Of The Galaxy. Here, he brings a certain learned poise to his performance, coupled with a bit of charm and dry humour to make for an, at least, watchable protagonist. It would be nice if there was any semblance of anguish about his circumstances, but never mind. Rose Leslie as Kaulder’s witch ally Chloe makes for a good foil for Kaulder, although her proficiency in the fantasy realm thanks to her work on Game Of Thrones is probably more to thank than her writing; the case for pretty much everyone here, really. Elijah Wood gets a couple of moments but nothing that substantial, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson can be intimidating when the film feels fit to use him and Michael Caine has remarkable chemistry with Diesel even considering their reduced time on screen.

One of the primary things that the more fantastical films have to do is construct and convey the world that the story exists in. To put it bluntly, this film fails to do so on two fronts. First off, while we get a decent idea about the film’s reality, it all feels like very surface information: A mood-altering bakery here, a witch’s potion bar there, a vaguely established council of witches in the corner. We get glimpses into them but it all ends up creating a very small universe, if that is even an appropriate word to use. Hell, I’m not even asking that we get to see how the existence of witches has affected the entire world; films like John Wick show that it is very possible to make a single city feel like a galaxy onto itself with the right script. Actually, come to think of it, pretty much everything in terms of writing is surface-level. Kaulder’s relationship with his deceased family serves as little more than emotional support in a bottle, which falls flat as the character’s actions and motives are driven by a completely undisclosed event that happened to them, most of the characters only exist to serve story purposes without any real personality of their own, and several bits of the witch’s lore fail pretty badly on the Fridge Logic test. Maybe if this was based on a pre-existing property, I’d blame this on adaptation deterioration and/or sequel baiting, something this film doesn’t exactly hide considering its rectal excavation of an ending (Seriously, that twist was unbelievably tacked-on). But no, this is one of the few original fantasy films that we’re likely to get any time soon, meaning that this rests entirely on the shoulders of the film’s screenwriters. Really, when you get right down to it, it’s just an incredibly bland and boilerplate fantasy film; otherwise known as the critical thinking man’s kryptonite, because I have barely anything to go on. As much as the world of Divergent fell to dust at the seams, it at least still felt like some attempt was made at world-building. For apparently being inspired by Vin Diesel’s old Dungeons & Dragons experiences, there’s a sheer lack of imagination that went into all this.

The only idea this film has in its head when it comes to fleshing out its surroundings is using the witches as an allegory of outsiders/minorities. What a shame, then, that this is so scatterbrained that I’m not even sure what to take from it. Throughout the film, Kaulder is treated as the government-sanctioned boogeyman by the witches, even getting a Hitler comparison thrown his way just to show these writers aren’t even trying at basic sentient interaction. However, through the very muddled and rather confusing attempts at characterization, it’s hard to tell whether that is meant to be taken as fact or propaganda. Again, if the writers were gracious enough to fill us in on some info considering the world of witches as it relates to the human world, this might have been clarified but, as it stands, it comes across more like general confusion over what anyone is supposed to represent in this story. Are the witches actually oppressed, or are the enemies here just a militant faction of them? Is Kaulder actually less of a good guy than we are told, or is the world around him just mistaken? Is there any possibility of the audience giving two shits either way, or will audiences likely forget all of it as they leave the cinema? Okay, that last one is easy enough to answer, but the point still stands. There’s a reason why most SF stories have some form of bible to work off of: To prevent confusion like this from happening.

All in all, this is about as boilerplate as a fantasy story can get. The setting is generic and not fleshed-out enough to make it anything substantial, the characters are pretty stock and the action is basic. Really, at the end of the day, there’s nothing all that wrong with it aside from some logic traps; what makes this film not worth seeing is just how little effort seems to have gone into it in terms of world-building. It’s bland and only really exists as a way to kill an hour and a half if you have literally nothing else to do; I can only hope that the proposed sequel to this gets canned, or at the very very least gets handed off to writers who know what the hell they’re doing. It’s worse than Seventh Son, which at least had engaging if bizarrely performed characters on screen; that, and the Plot Convenience Ledge still makes me giggle when I think back on it. However, out of virtue of this film not even having that compelling an idea to start off with, the execution of said lack of an idea didn’t fail as much as Self/Less’ lacklustre approach to a relatively decent idea.

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