Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Last Witchhunter (Guest Review)

Alternate Title:  Let Me Tell You About My Character...

One sentence synopsis:     Vin Diesel plays an immortal badass in Modern Day New York who polices the hidden magical world when SUDDENLY THINGS GET SERIOUS.

A Note Before We Begin:  As before, when I decide definitively not to see a movie, occasionally a friend fellow victim of mine goes to see it in my place.  And on such occasions, they will once in a while have an opinion on the film in question that takes the form of a review.  And so for this outing, given that it's award season, and I simply do not have time to double back and catch a Vin Diesel action movie about a D&D character of his, I decided to let a good friend of mine take on the task.  I will give him the opportunity to introduce himself, as I still have to finish hiring the assassins I will need to murder the entire production team for Spectre.

Turns out there's a group rate!

A Note from our Guest Reviewer:  Havoc and I will tend to disagree on movies, we tend to discuss them quite vigorously, so our tastes (and likely scores) will tend to be different depending on what it is we see, though they are rarely off by more than a few points. I offered to see this movie and do a guest review for a few reasons, not the least of which is that I am a LARPer and one of my characters is a Witch Hunter. This movie is literally about Vin Diesel playing a D&D character from back in the day that he really had fun with. I like Vin Diesel, I like gaming, I like movies, I pretty much had to see this one.

Things Havoc Hotfoot liked: I can’t ever really hate Vin Diesel. He played the greatest cinematic Superman, he’s a twenty-sided die hard nerd, and he genuinely seems like a terrific guy. That comes through in the movie, where the character he plays, Kaulder, is in many ways an extension of himself in more ways that other characters he has played in the past. He is not the unending pile of badassery that Riddick was, he is not the Iron Giant or Groot, he is in many ways himself, which means that we do get to see moments of honest kindness and charity expressed in his depiction of the Immortal Hunter of Witches. In the first scene of the film’s modern day section, we get a sense of what this character is about, and it’s something that could have been expanded on more, I think.

The premise for the film is also a decent one. It’s not one of unending war between the Hunters and the Witches, but one of a peace, if an uneasy one that has allowed the modern age to thrive while keeping magic away from the average person. Kaulder acts as the primary enforcer for the Axe and Cross organization.

By and large, everyone puts in a reasonable performance here. For what little time we see him, Michael Caine has a solid performance that is a bit more personable than his role as Alfred in the Nolan Batman movies. There’s some good chemistry between Diesel and Caine too. The others do their jobs well, for what time we have them on screen, and the movie doesn’t take huge amounts of time to do exposition about them or their pasts...

Things Havoc Hotfoot disliked: ...which is not the same as showing and not telling. Aliens remains one of the best movies for establishing a large cast and doing so with incredible economy of time, letting you get to know the characters through watching them instead of having them talk about their backstory. This movie allows characters to talk about their backstory, but does so only long enough to establish them and then quickly moves on to the next point. The movie feels fairly rushed, and not in the good way.

I usually go to see movies in theaters for the spectacle. Emotional or story-focused movies I reserve for the quiet of my own home. This movie barely cleared the bar for the spectacle. The special effects are serviceable, but the over-reliance on CGI, and not great CGI at that really hurt this movie for the value of the summer action movie. When you have to compete with what’s come out this year, it’s no small wonder this got released when it did, after the summer blockbusters but before the behemoths of winter.

The story was serviceable, but only that. The formula it uses has been used in a thousand other movies before, and save for a few deft turns, fails to bring anything new or interesting to bear. It also has a few moments where significant plot points seem to come from nowhere. The lore of the world is kept largely hidden from the audience so that things can be done as needed, and while there may be deeper in-universe explanations for some of it, it’s not presented to the audience ahead of time, so it still acts as ex machina style revelations.

The action sequences themselves are sadly brief and while not overly flawed seem somewhat unfulfilling. The perform their jobs adequately, but do little to engage the viewer. Part of this may be that Kaulder has Wolverine-like regeneration, and thus most physical threats are of little concern to him, but the other part is that I was expected a lot more supernatural stuff than what was presented. That isn’t to say they don’t bring trippy visuals and interesting predicaments, they do, but they are often easily overcome and ended quite quickly. The most interesting action sequence to me was the very first one in the film, and it quickly went from an Aliens styled Charlie Foxtrot to a scene that just allowed Kaulder to take center stage and set up the rest of the movie’s plot.

Perhaps the biggest failing of the movie is depicting Kaulder as an immortal. There have been several movies and stories of what it might be like to be immortal. Highlander, various Vampire movies, the list goes on. I understand not wanting to wallow in “oh man living forever sucks” and for once having a character who on some level enjoys it, but the sense I was getting was that Kaulder, while superficially enjoying his immortal life, at least on some level has to deal with a degree of inhumanity as a result. We get glimpses of that throughout the movie, but rarely do we see a full scene of it being played out.

One of the biggest flaws and oversights in this movie, however, has to deal with the fact that there is a massive global secret organization dedicated to keeping magic and witches under control, but Kaulder appears to be the only enforcer in existence. I get that you’d want the immortal, unkillable, experienced individual to handle particularly large problems, but given the supernatural community in New York alone, there should rightly be hundreds if not thousands of Witch Hunters worldwide. I get that since there is an accord of peace between the Axe and Cross and the Witch Council, they don’t need a full time army, but given how much havoc can be caused by children with magic, you’d think there would be some sort of emergency response team that isn’t Kaulder.

Another thing that is classic for Witch Hunter stories is having to make hard choices, to do things other people might call monstrous to protect others from even greater evils, and the line the hunter in question chooses to draw for themselves to keep from falling to said greater evils themselves. Again, we see hints of such elements popping up throughout, but we don’t really get to see the ramifications of it or the deeper character growth throughout. If anything, Kaulder is more of a Paladin than a Witch Hunter. Always trying to do the right thing, being merciful where he can be, he rarely does anything that would break his or anyone’s moral code. At one point he mentions how he could have wiped out Witches from existence, committed a mystical genocide of sorts, but he didn’t, because he wanted peace and knew it could be attained. In many ways he is sort of playing Superman here, and I think the movie calls for something a bit darker, though not quite Pitch Black.

Final thoughts:    For every good moment in this film, there seems to be a bad one along for the ride. That would have been forgivable had the action been better, as I can forgive quite a lot for good action. Sadly, The Last Witch Hunter did not quite live up to that expectation. Of course, this is a year spoiled by excellent action all around. In a year where the last movie I saw in theaters was Fury Road, something Humungous would have to come along to Lord over that. That said, with all the negative things I’ve had to say, I don’t think this movie was particularly bad. It’s a decent popcorn flick, just not great. As someone who plays a Witch Hunter in an RPG, and a live action one at that, I just can’t help but feel some kinship with this movie. It may also be why I’m more overly critical of it, if I’m being utterly honest. Vin Diesel made a movie about a character he played with dice and paper that he really loved, and as a nerd, that speaks to me. Had this come out the same year as, say, the Dungeons and Dragons movie (yes, that one), I’d probably sing the praises of this film until the end of time. That said, there’s enough promise here to potentially reach greater heights, and if this film ever gets the sequel it baited quite heavily, I’d certainly like to see it.

Next Time:   I don’t usually do numbers the way Havoc does, but as this is his blog, I’ll relent and provide a conversion rating. I’d recommend seeing this movie at a Matinee showing if you want to see the action on the big screen where it will, at least, be more impressive than it would be otherwise. If not, wait for on-demand or some other form of rental. For Havoc’s Numbers, I give this movie a 5.5. Had the action or story been better, it might have been a 6 or even 6.5.

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