Up until the point that the lights dimmed and the opening credits began to roll on the screen, there was a part of me that still suspected that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was just the world’s most elaborate practical joke being played on me by my colleagues. The 16th American President battling nosferatu with axe in hand? Only Darryn could come up with something that absurd and I wasn’t falling for it.
But then lo and behold, it actually turned out to be a real movie, with none other that visual auteur Timur Bekmambetov at the helm. And with a concept as out there as that, at least I’d be in for 105 mins of gorgeous visuals and the type of crazy and gory vampire spectacle that just leaves you grinning like an idiot, right? RIGHT?
Let’s just cut to the chase here, Seth Grahame-Smith’s script, which he adapted from his own novel of the same name, is one giant kooky concept. I know it’s a kooky concept, you know it’s a kooky concept. If you were to look up “kooky concept” in the encyclopedia you’d be greeted by a picture of Honest Abe, in signature top hat and beard, swinging his silver-edged axe at some snarling vamp’s face. If you had seen even a single minute of promo material for this film, then you’d know that this was not probably not the film to turn to when looking for historical melodrama and politicking.
Except, for a large portion of the film, that’s exactly what we get, which leaves me completely perplexed. When your script has a central premise as off the wall as this, then there’s nothing else to do but run with it. Run right through that wall, ignoring the tumbling bricks of logic and laws of physics, and don’t look back. This is something that Smith apparently realized with his novel, but almost completely forgot in his screen adaptation. And with this attempt at taking this very silly film very seriously, he’s just sapped most of the fun right out of it.
But it doesn’t start off that way though. When we first meet Abe, it’s as a young boy who attracts the wrath of the slave owner Jack Barts (Martin Csokas) when he saves a young black slave boy from Barts’ whip. Not taking too kindly to this little interruption of his early morning Body Beat session (whipping sure burns them calories!), Barts visits Abe’s mother for a little bit of lethal revenge (whether as payback for Abe interfering in his affairs or for the undiluted cheesiness of Abe’s mother’s earlier line “Until every man is free, we’re all slaves”, I’m still not too sure). And so young Abe begins to plot his own cold dish. Years later, Abe (Benjamin Walker) – now a young man – tries his hand feeding that cold dish to Barts, only to run into the little problem of Barts not wanting to stay dead. You see Barts, like a large number of his white slave owning brethren, is actually a vampire. A fact revealed by the mysterious Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper) when he saves Abe from Barts’ fangs.
Soon Sturges is doing his best Mr Miyagi impersonation (“Axe on, axe off”) schooling Abe in the art of vampire hunting, and teaching him to use ever more elaborate axe-kung-fu to divorce some steadily more dangerous vampires of their heads. All as preparation to take down Barts and his slaver boss, the enigmatic, thousands of years old vampire, Adam (Rufus Sewell). Cue training video montage!
It’s this opening act of the film, while containing some seriously laughable dialogue and character development as Abe courts – and I use that term in the most hamfisted, bludgeoning sense of the word – the young Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), that is probably its most entertaining as director Bekmambatov allows the craziness to just be. When Abe first confronts Barts, and gets saved by Sturges, the action has an exaggerated cartoonishness that is pitch perfect. And when Abe finally faces off with Barts on his own in the middle of, beneath and on top of a massive stampede of horses, the film reaches it’s silliness nirvana. I mean, if you don’t crack a smile when a man uses a fully grown horse as a melee weapon against another man, then I’m not sure that we can ever like the same things.
And Bekmambatov, with his distinctive bombastic style – used to such amazing ability on Night Watch, Day Watch and Wanted – brings a striking visual component to this film that is hard to deny.
Unfortunately, at this point we’ve only just about reached the 35 minute mark of the film. There’s still a lot more film to come, and if you think that anything else is gonna live up to what you just saw, then I have some very bad news for you.
It’s like Bekmambetov and co suddenly decided that us laughing kids need to keep quiet now, because the adults are talking. As Abe’s politician day job takes over the film, vampire slaying makes way for stiff lipped debate, culminating in Abe’s ascendancy to the highest political seat in the country. And there’s no other way to put it except to say that this portion of the film is boring with a capital Zzzzzzzzz….
Not helping matters much is that while Walker can certainly grow a beard like a pro, and yes, his signature top hat does indeed stay on his head, right where he placed it, he doesn’t bring much else to the role except a physical resemblance. His Lincoln is a forgettably dour figure. And while I certainly wouldn’t want to suggest that Abraham Lincoln was a closet party animal, it’s just that having this especially sombre figure in this absurd world was a massive tonal disconnect.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Anthony Mackie; as the slave boy who Lincoln saved turned lifelong friend, and Jimmi Simpson; as Joshua Speed, Lincoln’s first boss and prime adviser, don’t fair that much better either. They all turn in serviceable performances but nothing significant. The only person who seemed to have actually read the script and realized what a ridiculous movie he’s signed up for is Dominic Cooper, who appears to actually be having fun with his role.
But that “fun” is severely lacking from the rest of the production. Even when a vampire backed Civil War raises its head, it still just plods along. The climax on a speeding train to Gettysburg, suspended high above a crevasse on a burning and crumbling bridge is big, loud and green-screen heavy, just the way the Michael Bay Guide Book to Summer Blockbusters advocates it to be, but still comes across as flat and uninspired, and even has some starched shirt political messages thrown in there just for good measure.
With Bekmambetov in the director’s chair, this film should have been the perfect mash-up of creators and subject matter, but unfortunately after a promising start, it’s great visuals can’t make up for it’s muddled tone and insistence on taking itself so seriously, leaving it as just a toothless disappointment.
Last Updated: August 7, 2012