Opening with a slow-motion shot of a whip hitting a little boy in the face – in 3D, no less — Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is both stunning and stupefying in its earnestness. There are myriad problems with the film, the most egregious of which you can basically ascertain from watching the trailer: This campy, over-the-top movie takes itself deadly serious, which makes no sense when you consider the premise.
This is a movie about our 16th president wielding his ax on the undead — the tickets practically sell themselves! How do you mess this up? Fans of Wanted know director Timur Bekmambetov is less than subtle – his winks are encapsulated in trademark zoom-pause-slow-motion shots, usually CGI-laden, always backed by sonic boom-style bass. The thing is, the effects look so low-rent, and the 3D is played in such a hokey way, that it’s baffling he chose to have us enter such a world with a dark, straightforward tone. A few tongue-in-cheek moments, nods to the preposterousness of it all, could’ve catapulted this film to cult status.
Perhaps the reverence with which the material is handled becomes more justifiable if you’ve read Seth Grahame-Smith’s bestselling novel upon which the film is based. The book melds painstakingly well-researched history with fantastical elements in such a way that, at moments, the lines between fact and fiction seem blurred. It’s an alternate-history book that reads factually, and – with that in mind – it makes sense that producer Tim Burton brought the author on board to adapt the screenplay in similar fashion.
Sadly, Grahame-Smith’s adaptation does no such justice to the material, eliminating massive chunks of the novel’s heart and replacing it with wooden characters and unfocused, confused plot points. We’re given little to nothing of Abe’s (Benjamin Walker) early struggles, which are what so endear you to his plight in the novel. A good call was creating Adam (Rufus Sewell), the film’s main vampire antagonist, basically a melding together of a few of the book’s villains. Inconsequential was the decision to eliminate Abe’s little sister, as well as the multiple children he had with Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Confusing was the choice to add in William H. Johnson (Anthony Mackie), Lincoln’s personal valet – and an actual historical figure. Annoying was the lack of cohesion given to the book’s best character, Abe’s mentor Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper).
Most of Mackie’s role clearly hit the cutting-room floor. Johnson is a person many know nothing about, and the opportunity to provide audiences with his fascinating history and background is completely squandered. The characters serves little purpose – he’s the young boy whipped in the beginning, tying him to Abe’s childhood, but he only fully appears halfway into the movie to provide a face to the emancipation element woven within the vampire subplot. Mixed up, too, is Adam’s plight – the juxtaposition of his intended rise among his kind just as Abe is ascending to the national political stage is a fascinating idea that’s never fully realized. Instead, we’re given myriad scenes filled with violence and hazy threats that never quite add up to an understanding of the villain’s goals.
Henry’s treatment is such that we get a Rocky-style training montage showcasing Abe’s ax skills, which basically amount to him twisting the handle in a circular motion in somewhat laughable style, then obliterating a tree with one swipe, to much bark-flying 3D fanfare – but then he basically just pops in here and there throughout the narrative, at times providing us with an interesting glimpse into his past, other moments whispering surprisingly threatening mantras to Abe. The Henry of the book always suggested, never implored, and certainly didn’t threaten. The film’s rendering of such a faceted character comes across as schizophrenic, a big disappointment.
Adding to the movie’s multiple personalities: that Bekmambetov hired trained classical actors for the roles, but didn’t have the slightest idea how to handle them. Winstead and Walker are excellent together in their quieter scenes, and Walker’s chemistry with Mackie and Cooper is undeniable. Even Sewell, who has played the villain role countless times before, ushers interest in his character. But with a director only focused on the visuals, none of them quite mesh; it’s clear they all came prepared knowing (or creating) their respective backstories, but weren’t given any tangible elements to cling to on set. And, clearly, green screens don’t count.
Where the action is concerned, the film plays out like an extended trailer – it’s essentially a 105-minute montage. Bekmambetov’s zoom-pause-slow-mo style penetrates every scene ad nauseum, serving only to distance the audience from any possibility of engrossing plot points, and further frustrating the issue of how the movie’s tone is handled. There are two major action sequences, one of which I won’t tout as being worth the price of admission, but there’s a sequence set among a horse stampede that is jaw-droppingly absurd – from-the-producers-of-Luck absurd. The inevitable train-on-a-burning-bridge climax is typical Bekmambetov fare, made even less impactful by the fact that, up until that moment, you’ve been bombarded with his style to the point of desensitization.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a clear misfire, a film featuring substantially talented actors in roles they simply can’t reconcile. Bekmambetov’s vision would’ve been best realized by fully embracing the campiness of the idea, allowing the audience to exhale its collective breath with a big laugh. Sadly, I think I’m still holding mine.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter opens today nationwide.