Breck Eisner’s The Last Witch Hunter follows the very long life of Vin Diesel’s
original D&D character Kaulder, a man cursed with immortality for killing a powerful and evil witch, the aptly named Witch Queen, to avenge his murdered family (and also, bonus, save the world from the black plague). The film opens with Kaulder, rocking swoon-worthy Viking hair and attire, and his guild trekking through some craggy Icelandic mountains on their way to the Witch Queen’s tree. The wide shot is breathtaking and will immediately remind you of snowy scenes from The Fellowship of the Ring, but just as those nostalgic Tolkien feelings stir in your heart, the camera work gets sloppy and suddenly the screen starts shaking.
This swing-and-a-miss opener more or less sets the trend for the rest of the film, which honestly suffers very little from it. This is not a movie that attempts to do anything groundbreaking or move you with deep storytelling. This is a movie about Vin Diesel’s ability to carry a struggling sci-fi/fantasy franchise on his back. The Last Witch Hunter basically shows that you can forgive (almost) all of a film’s flaws as long as the right charismatic actor is at the lead.
Vin as Kaulder is immediately likable in his first modern day witch hunt (at 30,000 feet no less). When he discovers an adorable teen spellcaster (Bex Taylor-Klaus) unknowingly causing a storm around the airplane, he reacts with amusement. It turns out that he only kills bad witches and thinks good witches are kind of cute (same), and he finds the whole situation so endearing that he winks (swoon) at a bystander even as the plane plummets to the earth below. All this levity occurs right after the audience saw a witch stab the man in the chest 800 years ago, and it teaches us everything we need to know about the character not ten minutes into the movie. Kaulder is a man with a curse who seems totally unburdened by it, and he’s so confident and cool that he can give his dearest friend a fucking pen for his retirement and it’s not a lame gift.
In an onslaught of gritty fantasy and superhero movies, Vin Diesel’s newest headlining character is refreshingly not the brooding type. Kaulder accepts his fate, to a fault actually, and does what he can to keep the world safe, grimacing only when he has to dig into the memories of his “death.” It could be that Vin Diesel is just having a whole lot of fun playing this character (I swear there are more than a few scenes where he’s actively trying not to smile), but I’d like to think that this was a thoughtful choice on his part. It’s a way more entertaining to watch a hero take joy in the good that he does rather than sit in the dark and agonize over his painful past. And I want to emphasize here that this dark hero has had bad things done to him but has never actually done bad things; he has nothing to atone for and nothing to learn. Kaulder is the most straightforward character in the most straightforward fantasy film ever. He’s exactly the same person at the end of the story as he is at the beginning.
This sort of horizontal hero’s journey doesn’t actually harm the film. That’s left to the some of the other highly anticipated but largely disappointing performances from Michael Caine and Elijah Wood. Caine as the 36th Dolan delivers his lines so heartlessly that it seems as though he’s reading them off of cue cards. He feels just as present speaking as he does in a lifeless state on Kaulder’s couch, where he spends the majority of the film. Likewise, Wood as the 37th Dolan, is written as eager and endearing but feels disingenuous. Even if this was a purposeful performance on Wood’s part as insight into his character, it was a bad choice for the story. It didn’t help that his dialogue during the 37th Dolan’s major character moment was spit-take-worthy (and not in a good way).
On the other hand, Rose Leslie as Chloe, a young “dreamwalker” witch that gets tangled up in Kaulder’s fight against evil, is fresh and lovely on screen. She seems to genuinely grasp the film’s universe, and her performance feels natural even when she’s doing magical things that involve staring off into space. Unfortunately Chloe’s dialogue is the worst in the film. While Caine and Wood seem completely aware of the weak writing, Leslie at least tries, throwing emotional weight behind lines like “There must be another way!” but failing to give them any life. Initially she’s fun and quirky, especially when she tries to sneak a selfie with the unconscious Witch Hunter, but eventually her character is just boiled down to “love interest” (in a film, by the way, that doesn’t visually feature the lead boning anyone but his wife, so like, why?). By the end of the movie, she literally hangs out next to the hero’s car while the menfolk convene. C’mon, Last Witch Hunter, this is your only female lead, let her do things.
Despite the missteps in the acting mechanics, the movie is visually stunning. All of the original storytelling seems to come through best in the conceptual effects that give the film a very consistent aesthetic, which is reminiscent of director Breck Eisner’s work on The Crazies, another film that looked very cool but fell flat. If The Last Witch Hunter excels at anything, it’s style. Every character is dressed impeccably. The modern witches all have the same earthen, artsy vibe, sporting layered jewelry and surrounding themselves with nature and interesting light fixtures. The magic is organic, involving dirt and weaving sticks and feathers together, and the spells themselves feel tangible. Mixing the computer-generated imagery with practical effects was a great choice, especially when you remember that Kaulder’s flaming sword looks so righteous because Diesel is swinging around a Real Flaming Sword. Some of the best visual bits are successful in large part due to this combination.
Of course, we’re not here just to ooh and awe at a warlock casting a spell with thousands of shimmering blue butterflies; we’re here to watch Vin Diesel fight witches. Fortunately, even though Kaulder’s wingmen are somewhat of a snooze, the bad guys are full of charisma. Ólafur Darri Ólafsson as booming antagonist Belial seems to relish in his character just as much as Diesel, and Julie Engelbrecht as the Witch Queen chews up every line of dialogue and spits it out. It’s a delicious fight scene every time Kaulder meets up with these two in the film, and really, that’s what we’re paying for. This film is, at the very least, fun to watch.
I’m not saying that Vin Diesel gives a flawless performance in this film—he delivers some of his lines so slowly that he may have tacked on an extra five minutes to the run time. But unlike the other actors in this film, Vin’s performance implies that he either doesn’t notice that he’s in a shitty movie or he doesn’t care. The reason he can make a franchise indomitable is because he’s ride or die on all of his projects. He will act like his newest movie is the next Lord of the Rings, and you will believe him, at least for a moment. His enthusiasm on screen and on the press tour was contagious enough to sell me a ticket and even sell the studio on a possible sequel. Hopefully by the third film, Kaulder will have a goth teen witch sidekick and drive expensive cars across skyscrapers and wink directly into the camera as he shoves his flaming sword through the chests of three “14th level” warlocks standing in a line.
The Last Witch Hunter is now playing.