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