Movie Review: The Last Witch Hunter
By Ben Gruchow
October 28, 2015

Damn hipsters.

The Last Witch Hunter comes from a writing and directing team with a combined resume that can most courteously be dubbed as limited in both quantity and quality. The surprise, then, isn’t that the experience wasn’t painful, because that bar was already set pretty low. The surprise isn’t even that the movie is actually pretty good, nor that its production design exceeds expectations, or that its acting and writing make the grade consistently and occasionally do more than that. The surprise is that it’s all of these things while also being fairly nuanced for a genre film; this I did not expect. This is a playful and energetic sci-fi fantasy, irreverent and almost a little rebellious. It’s a lot of fun.

It is, of course, utterly goofy. And from the visible re-dubbing of dialogue, it’s plain that there was some extensive post-production work done, probably to clarify plot points. And character-wise, it’s shallow as all hell. However, I expected it to be all of these things while also being full of itself and dour and boring, like a Vin Diesel take on the Underworld series, or something truly horrific like Priest or 2010’s Legion. Instead, what I got was a goofy genre movie that kept wrinkling itself into shapes that were always a little more unpredictable, a little deeper, a little more invested, and with a little more care for its characters and world than we usually get. There are also some images and sequences of real power, and the impression we get as the film goes on is that the filmmakers were intoxicated with the world they had created onscreen, and they reveled in playing in it. There’s a lot of visual ingenuity and creativity, but not overwhelmingly so.

To be frank, the plot and characters could have shriveled up and died at this point and The Last Witch Hunter would still be by a huge margin the most accomplished work by the director and screenwriters, and this is coming from someone who approved of Eisner’s 2010 The Crazies. And in truth, the broad strokes of the story are pure standard for this kind of thing. Roughly 800 years ago, Kaulder (Diesel) and several fellow witch hunters track down the Witch Queen in her lair, which looks like the Tree of the Dead on growth hormones. Kaulder, who has lost his wife and daughter to the Witches, deals the Queen what appears to be a killing blow; before she dies, she curses him with immortality.

This brings us to the present day, where Kaulder is a normal-looking (for Vin Diesel) cross between detective, police officer, and muscle. There has been a truce, you see, between humans and witches in the last 800 years - but as a character played by Michael Caine intones in narration, a truce is a flimsy thing. Kaulder encounters a witch on a stormy nighttime airline flight, and here’s our first surprise. We never doubt that Kaulder means business, and yet we are not subjected to the kind of pessimistic, dour, self-involved mercenary who mindlessly kills waves upon waves of faceless enemies; instead, he’s a brisk but friendly enough and intelligent peacekeeper. We obviously do not encounter immortals during our daily life that we know of, but if we did, I imagine they would view their purpose with something like the manner we see here: weary, but faintly amused by any development no matter how dire; when you’ve gotten past the first few hundred years, a grave threat to the planet must seem like yesterday’s news before it even gets started.

The supporting characters - Rose Leslie as Chloe, a contemporary witch who’s much more concerned with keeping her bar open than casting spells on humans, along with Caine and Elijah Wood as assisting members of a kind of clergy - also strike notes that are broad but true. The things they say and do generally fit within the fabric of the universe and the setting the movie is putting forward. There are a few moments that even approach poignancy, generally those involving moments when Wood’s Dolan or Leslie’s Chloe.

Movies like this walk a fine line between working and not working, and it’s not a small gap between the two variables. A big chunk of the reason why bad films in this particular genre of fantasy mysticism are bad is because they don’t ring true. They try too hard to evoke an atmosphere and mood and character resonance that the screenwriting hasn’t earned. Perhaps the only recent film of this type I can think of that fell prey to this failing, while still succeeding as an entertainment, was 2005’s Constantine. Of course, Constantine was directed by Francis Lawrence, and he supplemented a weak story with vivid, precise, artful visuals.

The Last Witch Hunter does not have a craftsman of the same expertise at the helm, and while the movie contains impressive production design and some really rather beautiful imagery - a tableau of individuals facing a radically alternative New York City in one of the movie’s many hallucinatory visions is particularly lush and gorgeous, for all the wrong reasons, and it’s one of the movie’s best visuals - it relies on its levity to buoy it through the multiple storylines and plot twists, to a denouement that is less an opening for a sequel than a premature commitment to one. Even equipped with that levity, it’s ragged enough around the edges for me to easily comprehend a viewer reaction where the movie’s hook fails to stick the landing, and without the viewer buying that hook, The Last Witch Hunter looks an awful lot like a mess.

I bought it. I found myself surprised 40 or so minutes in at how much I’d accepted the material on its terms, and how interested I’d become in seeing more of this world. I found myself liking the way that the actors inhabited broad characters with ease and confidence, and liking Diesel’s take on an archetype. The humor is generally objectively good from the viewpoints of timing and intonation.

And even if the story and characters don’t agree with you, the movie is visually absorbing: I can easily remember the visual of dozens of supernatural prisoners imprisoned and linked, spiderweb-style, within the stone walls of a catacomb, even if I don’t quite understand what’s wrong with just lining them up single-file. The Witch Queen is a sight to behold: with what looks like a spare spinal column dragging out of the back of her head, burned and flaking skin, rotten teeth, covered in locusts. There is a mercenary creature that seems to be all root and thorns and fiery gaping maw. The creators of this movie had a lot of fun making it, and that comes through.