It’s been a long time since Breck Eisner directed a feature film, the surprisingly good 2010 remake of George A Romero’s The Crazies, and before that 2005’s Sahara, the less well received Clive Cussler adaptation starring Matthew McConaughey and Penélope Cruz which sank in its own desert of negative equity, so perhaps a story spanning eight hundred years is the project he had been waiting for.
The signs, however, were perhaps unfavourable; an action fantasy adventure inspired by leading man Vin Diesel’s love of Dungeons & Dragons, originally it was to have been directed by Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter‘s Timur Bekmambetov from a script which was subject to numerous rewrites before final credit was given to Cory Goodman (Priest) and writing team Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless (Dracula Untold) when shooting was postponed Diesel’s previous project Furious 7 following the death of his close friend and collaborator Paul Walker.
Yet from this mess of circumstance, while what has emerged is certainly not high art it is considerably better than might have been expected, as the typically laconic Diesel fashions another loner action hero inevitably saddled with the encumbrance of sidekicks whom he will most likely end up saving from a nasty end; at least, unlike Richard Riddick, the immortal witch hunter Kaulder is less likely to kill them himself if they cross him.
Set in a snowy wasteland, the opening scenes quickly establish the origin of Kaulder as he and all the men from his village set out to destroy the Witch Queen (Julie Engelbrecht) who had ravaged their land with plague, reclaiming it for her own from the upstart species of humanity. While the others fight her spawn, Kaulder engages her with fire and steel but his victory comes at a price, the curse of eternal life put upon him as she dies.
Eight centuries later, weary but resigned, Kaulder still acts as agent of a religious order led by the Dolan, the current holder of the post (Interstellar‘s Sir Michael Caine) his mentor, confessor and friend, but Kaulder’s visit to New York is interrupted by black witchcraft which indicates that a dark and powerful force is arising.
Like Dame Judi Dench in The Chronicles of Riddick, persuaded by a personal request from Vin Diesel, when not driving fast cars he likes to put himself on screen with class, and perhaps the most surprising thing is how well he adapts. As with Dench’s Air Elemental Aereon on the planet Helion Prime, here he shares a five minute dialogue with Caine in the apartment of Father Dolan, both actors underplaying and warm in their relaxed friendship, and it is unfortunate that they do not have more time together.
Instead the bulk of Kaulder’s time is spent with Chloe (Game of Thrones‘ Rose Leslie, more recently seen in Honeymoon), owner of a bar with an exclusively witch clientele whose potions may unlock memories long hidden from Kaulder, the rest of the cast which includes The Lord of the Rings‘ Elijah Wood, Lockout‘s Joseph Gilgun, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson and Isaach De Bankolé largely underused.
During his few scenes Wood serves as a representative of the Dolan order woefully unprepared for a mission he was not expecting to undertake so soon, though from a narrative point of view he plays the “companion” role dutifully asking questions on behalf of the audience so Kaulder can explain his own magic, though fortunately the subsequent introduction of the resourceful and determined Chloe somewhat compensates for this.
The magic itself is unexpectedly innovative and sometimes beautiful as it effervescently illuminates the screen, and while there are certainly battles, plagues of flies and a great deal of fire and consequently a huge reliance on digital enhancement most of it is well realised, the enchanted bakery filled with impossibly perfect butterflies, the dream sequences filmed in suitably oversaturated colours, the nightmare realm of the Witch Queen a vertiginous shadowy pit, with only the monsters Kaulder must battle moving towards unconvincingly clunky “crush, kill, destroy” territory.
Despite this, much of the film is surprisingly low key with Kaulder’s first confrontation in the modern section of the film solved calmly and with charm, the sinister occult practices behind the upmarket brownstones of New York (actually filmed in Philadelphia) recalling the atmosphere of Rosemary’s Baby, had that been pitched to the studio as a $90 million dollar action movie star vehicle.
The Last Witch Hunter is currently on general release