Sunday, July 1, 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Alternate Title:  The Great Eviscerater

One sentence synopsis:    Abraham Lincoln hunts vampires during and after his rise to the Presidency.

Things Havoc liked: What, really can you say about a movie like this? A movie that doesn't even pretend to be historically accurate, a movie with a concept so insane that it's almost genius. The historian in me was cringing, but the aficionado of awesome spectacle was watching Abraham Lincoln employ a silver wood axe to murder vampires in a plantation house in Louisiana or battling them atop a racing train car on the way to deliver victory at Gettysburg. This is one of those movies that gets more awesome the more ludicrous it gets, and believe me, this film gets very, very ludicrous.

Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter stars Benjamin Walker, an unknown, as the title character, presumably because he is unnaturally tall (I kid). Actually, Walker is quite good in a role that must be almost unplayable, portraying Lincoln both as a young man training to become a lawyer and politician (and vampire slayer), and an old man weighed down by the responsibilities of presidency and war (and vampire slaying). Walker's performance is earnest and forthright, and he plays the material completely straight, which is frankly the only thing he could do with it. He even manages a decent turn at mimicking Lincoln's famous oratory. Though the old-age makeup isn't tremendously convincing, and Walker doesn't frankly look much like Lincoln to begin with, his performance anchors the film well, and grounds it in a layer of reason that material this insane requires.

Walker is further helped by several other good performances to work off of. One is Anthony Mackie, an excellent actor with credits such as 8 Mile, the Hurt Locker, and one of my guilty favorites, last year's The Adjustment Bureau. He plays William Johnson, a black boy from Illinois who was one of Lincoln's childhood friends and who grows up to become his personal assistant and comrade-in-arms against the Vampires. Leaving the historical accuracy of such a character aside, Mackie strikes just the right chord here, never veering completely into anachronism. Further help is provided by Dominic Cooper (who played Anthony Stark in last year's Captain America), here playing Lincoln's mentor, Henry Sturgess, a bitter, violent vampire hunter who inducts Lincoln into the secret world in question. He and Walker play well off one another, and his character provides a bit of additional life for the movie whenever it pauses for breath.

But the best thing in the movie is the main villain (always a good sign), played in this case by veteran English actor Rufus Sewell. Sewell plays Adam, a five thousand year old vampire who has come to the United States with the intention of claiming the nation for Vampires to live in openly. Sewell seems to be the only one in the film who actually knows what sort of movie he's in, and plays his character with a world-weary amusement that's honestly quite funny. He gets some of the best lines in the film, particularly in a delightfully deranged sequence set in a drooping plantation house in New Orleans straight out of an Anne Rice novel. While most of the other vampires in the film chew (and in fact, inhale) all of the scenery within reach, Sewell seems to find the entire situation mildly hilarious, and gives his character a bit of polish that is... shall we say... somewhat lacking in most of the others.

Things Havoc disliked:   That said, high concept and rule-of-absurdity can only get you so far, and we have some problems here.

One of them is Mary Elizabeth Winstead (previously of Grindhouse, Die Hard 4, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) who is unfortunately quite badly miscast in this movie as Mary Todd Lincoln. I'm not going to bother arguing that her performance is historically inaccurate (though it is) but merely point out that the film takes great pains to at least pretend to be about the mid-nineteenth century, and Winstead still seems at times to be channeling Ramona Flowers from Scott Pilgrim. Doey-eyed schmaltz is fine, but 20th century mannerisms stick badly out in a film like this, and frankly her line delivery, especially during the more intense scenes, borders on the ludicrous. I liked Scott Pilgrim, and I admired her role in it, but might I suggest that costume dramas (which this film masquerades as being) are not her thing. Equally badly miscast is Alan Tudyk (of Firefly among other things), a wickedly funny actor who is completely wasted here in a thankless role as Stephen Douglass, given nothing more to do than introduce Winstead and make a few half-hearted remarks about preserving Slavery.

But the biggest problems with this film have nothing to do with the actors. The movie is directed by Timur Bekmambetov, who gave us the truly awful movie adaptation of Wanted, and while this film isn't nearly as bad as that one was, it bears many of the same mistakes. Combat sequences, of which there are many, are positively overloaded with Zach Snyder-like Slow-mo-speed-up shots, sometimes using four or five such effects in the same shot. I don't hate the slo-mo trope as much as I do things like Shaky-cam, but this much of it gets very tiring, especially with an enormous number of shots clearly done solely to look cool in 3D (something I skipped this time around and suggest you do too). Moreover, the combats themselves, though reasonably high-energy, tend to drag on and on, especially the final one, which lasted so long that one person I was with took a bathroom break in the middle of it and missed nothing.

But there's also a fair amount of just basic film-making issues. The movie wants to have its cake historically and eat it too, wishing to be regarded as a reasonable facsimile of the 19th century and the life of Abraham Lincoln, while also presenting a plot so absurd as to strain credulity. I don't mind that, in fact I think it rather in poor taste to object to a movie's premise (there are exceptions of course), but the collision between the two is quite visible and leads to a lot of unanswered and unaddressed questions. I know that Lincoln split rails as a young man, and that he was noted for being very physically powerful, but where precisely did he gain the power to chop down (in fact, to detonate) large hardwood trees with a single blow of his axe (the movie seems to handwave the question away as 'the power of righteous anger'). Similarly, the principles of the Vampire mythos are pretty well established in modern fiction. Therefore, where did this concept that Vampires are unable to hurt one another come from? And why are they apparently able to go out during the day (anyone who cites Twilight as a precedent will be shot) without ill effect? I'm not averse to shaking up the Vampire myth, (and in fairness, the movie's explanation for why Silver is anathema to these Vampires is one of the better ones I've heard), but if you're going to deviate from the established canon, you have to at least give us some idea why or how, or else your movie has no rules.

And I know I said I wouldn't argue the historical inaccuracy thing, I know, but take it from one who really enjoys twisting history up (I've written stories about dragons in WWII for God's sake), there's a difference between a ludicrous premise and a ludicrous execution. Your story doesn't have to be consistent with history, but it does have to be consistent with itself, and there are parts of this one, particularly near the end, where the story doesn't just tear up history but also physics, geography, and common sense. Without giving too much away, Lincoln's "brainstorm" for how to defeat the Confederate vampires should have been obvious from the beginning, and is enacted in a span of time and over a span of distance that is simply impossible. I don't care how angry or determined you are, or how many fugitive slaves you have to assist you, the production of metric tons of explosives and weaponry took longer than five minutes, even back in the 1860s, and you cannot lug sufficient sufficient ammunition and weapons for an army of a hundred thousand over a distance of eighty miles on foot in one night. Moreover, if your central conceit is that Lincoln fought a secret war with Vampires throughout his life unbeknownst to history in general, it's probably a good idea not to publicly and drastically alter the events of the greatest battle in the Western Hemisphere.

Final thoughts:  I'm really of two minds on this one. I didn't hate this movie, and in fact I actually enjoyed large parts of it. But while Bekmambetov didn't actively piss me off this time the way he did with Wanted, the problems with his style are still highly evident, and the film's myriad flaws prevents me from recommending it highly. I know my attachment to history borders on mania, and that my view of Wanted (and perhaps of this film) will not be shared by large elements of the geek community, but one must call these films as one sees them, and my call for this one can be summed up simply as a great idea hampered by pedestrian execution.

But hell, if you're curious about this movie (and what self-respecting geek would not be), a Netflix rental or stream couldn't hurt.

Final Score:  5.5/10

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