The cardinal sin in film creation is self-indulgence. A director must possess the innate understanding that what interests them does not automatically foster the same curiosity in others. Timur Bekmambetov, a native Russian-Kazakh, is undeniably captivated by the history of the 16th American president, Abraham Lincoln. Because of this, he commits the cardinal sin of boring movie goers who expect something called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter to be, you know, fun. And the one statement I make with absolute conviction is that there is not an ounce of fun to be had in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
Movie Review: Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter
By David Mumpower
July 2, 2012
For those of you unfamiliar with the story, it is exactly what the title suggests. The life story of one of America’s greatest leaders is re-imagined as a chain of events triggered by one defining moment when young Abe witnesses his mother killed by a vampire. Because of this, he embarks on a training program that will enable him to find the creature of the night responsible for Mama Lincoln’s death. Vengeance drives him to a moment of truth, one that does not go as anticipated since Abe is a young adult while the vampire is an undead killing machine.
Young Lincoln needs further training to accomplish his goal: eradication of all vampires. Wait, wasn’t Lincoln the equality for all president? Anyway, following the basic Buffy the Vampire Slayer premise that every Buffy needs a Giles, Abe is tutored in monster hunting by a mysterious stranger named Henry Sturgess. As portrayed by Dominic Cooper (recently known as Howard Stark in Captain America: The First Avenger), Sturgess is the closest the movie comes to a fully developed character…and while I enjoy Cooper as an actor, I am not saying this as a compliment to his performance here. Instead, the surprise revelations given to his character are so predictable that I found myself idly wondering if Bekmambetov has ever met a person who couldn’t figure them out.
Everyone else in the movie is much worse than mediocre and that grouping assuredly includes Benjamin Walker as Abe Lincoln. Walker, the son-in-law of Meryl Streep, has apparently learned nothing of the craft from her. I’m not even certain he has seen any of her movies. His only major role previously was in Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers, making him a bland choice to anchor a movie with such a colorful title. In the end, Walker’s lack of experience in carrying a film proves fatal to the proceedings. He is the least engaging would-be action hero since Gabriel Macht in The Spirit.
The worst crime of the movie, however, is committed by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, an actress I ordinarily adore. The problem is not with her inasmuch as the poorly defined character she portrays. Mary Todd Lincoln is among the most famous First Ladies in the history of the United States and yet this role is given so little consideration that just thinking about her story arc angers me. When first introduced, Mary Todd is engaged to Stephen Douglas, a historically accurate footnote (more or less).
Within moments of Mary Todd’s introduction to Abe Lincoln, she hits on him right in front of her betrothed. Later, she invites Lincoln to the party hosted Douglas, who is running for office. Once again, she effectively cuckolds Douglas by sex-dancing all over Honest(ly Aroused) Abe and then she later has a public picnic with the man who is not her fiancée. I recognize that Ms. Todd’s checkered past has been the subject of much conjecture over the past 150 years and I also realize there wasn’t a TMZ back in the day. Even so, the speed with which Mary Todd goes from engaged to Douglas to head over heels in love with Lincoln represents the laziest sort of storytelling. And don’t get me started on her son. Or the ridiculous duel with the even less developed villainess in the movie, whom I only learned via the credits is the sister of the primary villain. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is the most accredited thespian in this cast, yet here she is reduced to the equivalent of “pretty girl in an early Jackie Chan movie.” The entire movie has issues such as this where character development is eschewed in favor of stylized goth.
For those of you who believe I am being too hard on the movie for playing it straight rather than showing a sense of humor, know this. I am first in line to lecture critics who judge a movie for what they want it to be rather than for what it is. This is a lazy means of dismissing a product merely because of unfounded expectations by the viewer. I do not believe that this is not the reason why I am so disappointed in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. To the contrary, I believe that a drama in this hybrid genre of American history and gothic horror could be just as effective as a comedy. Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter is ineffective regardless of its tone.
I am someone who enjoys Supernatural just as much as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with the former being more dramatic while the latter is more jovial. Each of these titles vacillates between those extremes and thereby defies definition to some extent. Such liberation would be welcome in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the big screen adaptation of the Seth Grahame-Smith novel of the same name. Instead, it is dutifully structured toward displaying the life of Abraham Lincoln no matter how unfocused the rest of the movie may be. We do not know any of the laws of this realm's treatment of vampires. We know little of the reason why a vampire clan would target Lincoln beyond the fact that he fails to kill one of them. And we have no flippin' clue how his friend, Will Johnson, becomes a master monster slayer himself at some point between the second and third acts. Audiences are expected simply to believe that all of these unexplained reasons are tolerable. They're not.
Remarkably, there is no team of Hollywood scribes to blame for this lack of imagination. Instead, Grahame-Smith himself is responsible for the burdensome screenplay, a strange combination of seventh grade Civics class and lethargic action film. This is a history lesson given by an actor with the charisma of Ben Stein. In fact, describing Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter as an action film is too charitable.
Bekmambetov has a reputation as a style over substance director. Perhaps he took this criticism to heart by overcompensating, trying to develop the story beyond the point of enjoyment. Every key moment of Lincoln’s life winds up represented in some way onscreen. In other words, the focus of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is on the Abraham Lincoln part. The Vampire Hunter aspect, the key sales point to the movie, is notably underdeveloped. Imagine the same frustration with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a show that featured almost all of her high school extracurricular events and school functions but none of her actual vampire slaying. That is the fatal flaw with this movie.
We already know about the life of Abraham Lincoln. I want to see the fictitious reimagining of it with him as a badass hunter. In lieu of that, I would settle for something entertaining. Instead, a dull actor talks too much while saying too little, particularly frustrating for a story about a man known for the maxim: "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”
Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter is an alternate reality History Channel Biography episode that lacks cohesion. Even if the idea of a too serious take on the life of Lincoln as a hunter is a premise you may enjoy, the execution here is such that you will find yourself looking at your watch early and often. This movie is like a school lecture that will not end rather than a must-see popcorn blockbuster. If you want a fictional re-telling of Abraham Lincoln's adventures, watch Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure instead.