THE LAST WITCH HUNTER (Cert: 15)
Entertainment One. 106m
Starring: Vin Diesel (Kaulder), Michael Caine (Ellic), Rose Leslie (Chloe), Elijah Wood (37th Dolan), Julie Engelbrecht (The Witch Queen), Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (Belial), Isaach De Bankóle (Max Schlesinger), and Dawn Olivieri (Danique)
Reviewed by Alex Bardy
It’s fair to say that upon its original theatrical release, The Last Witch Hunter failed to impress, lasting barely a month at most UK cinemas, and ‘bombing’ at the US box office with a paltry $10m opening weekend. It was also lambasted by a lot of the media at the time with many struggling to follow the balmy plot and Vin Diesel and Elijah Wood in particular being pilloried for their wooden performances.
So… was it really as bad as all that?
Let’s take off the blinkers for the minute, and at least pretend we haven’t all been spoilt rotten these last few years by brilliantly visual TV series like Game of Thrones, Walking Dead, The 100, etc. and too, that we’re not accustomed to routinely hearing about the latest over the top Marvel blockbuster storming the box office… and well, let’s all just play nice for now, shall we?
** POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD **
Taking it from the top, then… witches have been locked in a war with the witch hunters for centuries, Vin Diesel’s Kaulder is the last witch hunter of the title, working on behalf of a church-like organisation called the Axe and Cross and enforcing a centuries-old truce with The Witch Council. Having been cursed to live forever by the original Witch Queen when he killed her (and consequently, forced to watch his friends and loved ones die around him for time eternal), Kaulder has walked the Earth for 800 years and understandably become jaded and perhaps a bit too cocky and complacent. The Dolans are the priest-like ‘handlers’ who work alongside Kaulder and chronicle his story for future generations, and as his latest Dolan, Ellic (Michael Caine), retires to make way for a young successor, things take a turn for the worst when he’s found dead the following day. Kaulder suspects foul play, picks up hints that not is all as it seems, and soon uncovers a plot to revive the dead Witch Queen and thus bring about a fresh global plague upon the human race. The key to stopping this happening seems to lay in the circumstances of Kaulder’s original death, and thus Kaulder seeks the aid of a Dream-walker witch, Chloe (Rose Leslie), to help him remember. Alas, it’s here that things start to get really messy, when Kaulder is temporarily captured by the mysterious Belial (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), an ancient warlock who is utilising dark magic to help bring about the aforesaid return of the Witch Queen and global decimation. Chloe saves Kaulder from getting lost in his own memories, and then looks on helplessly as her entire world is put to flames by the evil warlock. Despite this, and stretching the bounds of credibility to its very limits, Chloe agrees to help Kaulder track down and kill Belial before he can bring about the apocalyptic destruction of the world, making a very good case for her claim that not all witches have to be bad people. The rest of the movie feels like a string of loosely-tied action sequences in which Kaulder and Chloe discover big-time betrayal, turn up just in time to see the rebirth of the Witch Queen, a battle between good and evil is fought, a number of loose ends get tied up (some with the frailest of make-shift string), and Chloe gets a turn at driving Kaulder’s prestigious Aston Martin.
** END OF SPOILER ZONE **
As a movie and a story there are flaws aplenty to be found of that you can be sure, and you don’t have to look that hard to find them, it’s true, but as pure entertainment for the generic, popcorn-munching masses, I think too many people are far too quick to start throwing their toys out the pram, and in this instance, that’s a crying shame, really.
Trying to approach this with a spirit of independence, there is a lot to like about this film.
Michael Caine’s brilliant turn as Ellic, the 36th Dolan, brings a lot of balance and credence to proceedings, and his brief explanatory voiceover near the beginning does wonders for the short meeting which follows; although they’re only seen together for a short time, the onscreen connection between the two is well realised, and you do believe that Ellic’s decision to retire after fifty years wasn’t an easy one to make. “I vowed to face death at your side, not to work until I keel over,” he says to Kaulder, and it’s abundantly clear they’ve become good friends during his tenure alongside him, keeping watch and maintaining the peace as the uneasy truce between witches and witch-hunter remains in force. As Ellic remarks in his handover speech to his successor, the 37th Dolan (Elijah Wood), in reference to the fact that Kaulder is known chiefly as ‘the weapon’ to the Elders within the Axe and Cross: “It’s Kaulder that I’m worried about… He isn’t just a weapon, and those of us who know the truth, we bear responsibility. Whatever happens, promise me, you’ll watch out for him.”
I was also particularly pleased to see Rose Leslie playing against type as the good witch Chloe (most will only remember her as Ygritte, the wildling love interest of Jon Snow in Game of Thrones, or perhaps as the housemaid in Downtown Abbey), and despite her incredulous about-turn halfway through the movie –in which she seems to transform from tough but largely fearless into just badass tough– she helpfully proclaims “Who says that a witch can’t hunt witches?” and summarily agrees to accompany Kaulder into his forthcoming battle to save the world.
As for Vin Diesel’s performance being wooden, I thought he did very well actually. You do get the sense that here’s a character who has been around for a while, seen it, done it, bought the tee-shirt, and still tries to maintain a positive, upbeat approach to the technical wonders and progress of the modern world – an aspect that is subtly underplayed across the board, but figures largely throughout the movie, Michael Caine’s dismissive attitude to the iPad notwithstanding… Wooden performance? Pah! I disagree. Alas, there is no earthly explanation as to where all Kaulder’s money and fine living stems from, unless the church –sorry, the Axe and Cross, ahem– really are just that stinking rich. And although there are quaint references to his many female lovers (well, mainly air stewardesses in truth), the abiding loneliness of his plight in the world is frequently alluded to but never really given much in the way of substance. Undeniably, there are tenuous suggestions that Chloe will go some way to making up for this shortfall, but that’s evidently something that was shelved early on, and probably sitting ‘in the wings’ in anticipation of a sequel.
Of course, these ‘highlights’ are offset by aspects of the film that still don’t make much in the way of sense: the mysterious token black character who is eventually used as a scapegoat and conduit for the rebirth of the Witch Queen, is one Max Schlesinger (Isaach De Bankóle) and labelled a ‘traitor’ by Belial halfway through the movie. His crimes? I’m not entirely sure, squealing to Kaulder under threat, perhaps, but he happens to be a blind herbal witch-cum-baker who routinely turns grubs and insects into beautiful fairy cakes for high society, has a veritable army of bright blue, pretty butterflies at his beck and call, and is evidently terrified of both Kaulder and Belial.
Similarly, a scene in which Kaulder succumbs so easily to the witchcraft of Danique (Dawn Olivieri), a street-smart underground boss of the fashion world, feels contrived in the extreme. I can already hear them heckling at the back: “This guy has been around for 800 years and didn’t see that one coming? Sheesh…” Indeed, it’s hard to see how Kaulder has managed to stay in such rude health given this is the second time he’s been caught in a restless limbo from which he may never wake up, at least not without outside help in the form of Chloe. I can sympathise with the writers here a little because it’s hard to put your protagonist in danger when he is at heart an immortal, his wounds healing rapidly, his skin forever unblemished, etc. so perhaps placing him in a permanent dream-state is the closest thing to death that you can threaten him with? Or perhaps a bit more imagination and depth of vision would have yielded any number of alternative forms of mental incarceration?
I would probably add that the DVD Extras in this release are well worth a look, and especially enjoyed the Animated Shorts that accompanied this. My only quibble would be that one of the Deleted Scenes, ‘Fear Potion’ would have probably gone a long way to establishing a starting point for viewers to care about the ensuing conflict in Chloe’s bar, had it been included in the original movie.
** ANOTHER SPOILER AHEAD **
Lastly, and without wishing to spoil things too much, the last-minute death (and betrayal) of the 37th Dolan is founded on slivers of ice so slippery thin they couldn’t support a paper-clip, frankly.
** END OF SPOILER ZONE **
Maybe, in the end, there was just too much story to tell, and the final product was always going to fall well short of its original ambitious narrative, and having Vin Diesel as the lead was never going to make it an easy ride, but I for one am happy to give this movie the benefit of the doubt. This is not a terrible movie. Deeply flawed it may be, but terrible? I tactfully suggest you put all your toys back in the pram, park your doubts to the kerb, and allow yourself to be entertained in that time-honoured tradition of suspension of disbelief. Perhaps then, just maybe, you’d find something nice to say about this.
The ending deliberately sets out to virtually guarantee a sequel is in the pipeline, and although it won’t be so easy to pack that huge bugbear of doubt inside the hood of my jacket, I will at least give it a chance, something too many people are way too reluctant and self-absorbed to do nowadays, it seems…
BLU-RAY™ AND DVD SPECIAL FEATURES
· Crafting the Magic: The Last Witch Hunter
· Animated Short Films: The Origins of the Axe and Cross: Before Mankind, The Witch Lords, The Witch Hunter, Witches Live Among Us
· The Last Witch Hunter Sizzle Reel – Paint It Black
· Deleted Scenes: Fear Potion, Ellic’s House
· Commentary with Director Breck Eisner