by:GABRIELLA GAMBOA/Staff Writer
Many films try and fail to pull off the action-packed fantasy that director Breck Eisner nails in “The Last Witch Hunter.”
The keys to Eisner’s success are confidence and patience, both of which compensate for the film’s script whenever it becomes oddly thin (especially during its rushed finale). Still, if nothing else, “The Last Witch Hunter” is so much more accomplished than other recent movies, such as “The Matrix.”
It is an adventure film about a superhuman man-of-action (Vin Diesel, in this case) that sees the world for what it really is. He is humanity’s last hope of keeping a peaceful status quo. While most other films quickly go through dialogue and bluster their way through action scenes, “The Last Witch Hunter” equally brings everything together to make you want to suspend your disbelief.
A very charming Diesel plays Kaulder, a witch-slayer who was cursed to live forever by the Witch Queen (Julie Engelbrecht) back in the olde viking days. A member of the mortal-led witch-hunting organization, Axe and Cross, Kaulder has grown full of himself after centuries of walking the Earth with no worries. But when Ellic (Michael Caine), Kaulder’s sidekick and the narrator of his stories, dies on the day of his retirement, Kaulder investigates and discovers a plot to bring forward the centuries-dead Witch Queen.
Here’s where “The Last Witch Hunter” starts to get so dorky that you may want to give yourself a double look for enjoying it. In order to stop the Witch Queen, Kaulder must remember his own death, a clue left for him by Ellic in smudged fingerprints all over one of Ellic’s most prized books. The Rolodex of enemies and fair-weather contacts that Kaulder meets up with on his rocky road to remembering is absolutely crazy. Their ranks include Max Schlesinger (Isaach De Bankolé), a blind pastry chef who makes cupcakes out of psychedelic moths, butterflies, and maggots, and Belilal (Olafur Darri Olafsson), a squat, curse-slinging warlock with a bushy beard and barrel chest.
What make this scenario work are the random flashes of intelligence that prove that the film’s writers thought about what motivates Kaulder. Diesel’s usual cockiness suits his character. As he points out to Dolan the 37th (Elijah Wood), Ellic’s successor at Axe and Cross, there’s nothing he hasn’t seen. Diesel is used pretty well in that sense, proving he’s more than a blunt instrument in scenes where he huskily broods and sweet-talks his way around the film’s most uncontrollable exposition. Few action stars can easily make their way through a scene where mystic rune stones that control the elements are used to stop and start a thunderstorm. Diesel is on the short list.
There are even fewer directors who are sensitive enough to sell scenes as conceptually all-over-the-map as those showcased here. But thanks to Eisner, there are very few scenes in “The Last Witch Hunter” that feel rushed. Romantic playfulness feels genuine in scenes such as when Kaulder and Chloe (Rose Leslie), a young witch, flirt at Chloe’s hookah bar.
There aren’t nearly enough scenes where Eisner, who previously directed “The Crazies” and “Sahara”, can flex his muscles and prove that he’s a stronger storyteller than what he comes off to be. The best is probably when Chloe comes home and silently tries to ward off a threatening spirit with multiple light bulbs. This scene teaches you how to watch it. No character has to explain that the bulbs’ light is Chloe’s only defense against whatever is trying to invade her home. You just pick up that knowledge by watching Eisner work.
Eisner’s direction is similarly thoughtful during big special-effects-driven set pieces. He’s a sturdy choreographer. But flashbacks to Diesel’s “Dungeons and Dragons”-worthy encounters with the Witch Queen and modern-day skirmishes with Belial do look good, and that’s not just because of Eisner’s keen eye for writing.
“The Last Witch Hunter” is just generally seen in ways that most fantasies should be, but aren’t. There’s breathing room in scenes where characters have to appear to be living with decisions they made a couple of scenes earlier. You know you’re seeing an awkwardly dopey, but well-assembled fantasy when Caine has to explain to viewers the Witch Queen’s plan to spread a human-decimating plague using the various witches that Kaulder locked up through the years in the Axe and Cross’s “witch prison.”
“The Last Witch Hunter” may be corny at heart, but it’s cool enough to convince you otherwise while its creators sell you a story you’ve seen some iteration of many, many times before.
I give this movie 3 out of 5 stars.