There are some action movies that just embrace the total absurdity of their own existence, and invite you to come along for a crazy silly ride. These are among my favorite sorts of movies out there, and I’m happy to report that The Last Witch Hunter is a pretty good addition to this canon.
Very minor spoilers ahead. Like, basic premise stuff, and a few thematic observations.
The Last Witch Hunter is getting critically demolished—last I checked, it had an even worse Rotten Tomatoes rating than Jem and the Holograms—which is too bad, because it’s really a quite fun movie. It’s not deep or clever, and it doesn’t pack a lot of powerful emotion or anything, but it’s in the same “mindless fun” ballpark as Kingsman, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, Drive Angry, Season of the Witch, Doomsday and a host of other recent “B” action movies.
In The Last Witch Hunter, Vin Diesel plays Kaulder, a Viking or something, who killed the Witch Queen 800 years ago and was cursed with immortality. Now it’s the present day and he’s living in New York and still hunting witches after all this time. He has all the usual issues around being immortal and watching everyone else die, but he’s also pretty laid-back about the whole thing.
Kaulder’s main helpers are two priests, played by Michael Caine and Elijah Wood, and Caine in particular is giving a very Blame It on Rio performance. You can see him thinking of the house payments as he mouths every line. It’s even funnier because he’s basically playing Alfred from the Christopher Nolan Bat-films, but now you get to see what it would look like if Alfred did not give two shits about any of this. (“Maaaster Wayne, I buried your parents, and I swore to meself that I would never... aw, sod it. Just go fight Bane, I just realized I don’t actually care.”)
Wood, though, brings a certain nervy conviction to the role of a young priest who wants to fight for justice. And then Kaulder also winds up teaming up with a witch named Chloe (Rose Leslie from Game of Thrones), and the antagonistic partnership between Witch Hunter and witch gives the movie a bit more energy, just as it might otherwise start to flag.
This is the sort of movie where the place that evil witches get sent is called Witch Prison, as if nobody could be bothered to think of a better name. Kaulder is working for the naffest secret society you’ve ever seen, who are basically like a narcoleptic Watchers’ Council. The plot more or less makes sense, but there are tons of ridiculous contrivances along the way, and the climax of the film is very, very hand-wavy.
That said, Last Witch Hunter is basically nonstop fun, with a fast pace and a total willingness to laugh at itself. And not only is there nothing wrong with that, there’s everything right with it.
The rest of this review will basically be given over to a paean to Vin Diesel.
I’m pretty sure Vin Diesel is the main reason I liked this movie so much. He’s just effortlessly likable and good-natured, with an undercurrent of danger and hostility that show in his taut neck-muscles and his knotted brow. Vin Diesel is probably the closest thing we have to an old-school 1980s action-movie star, in a swarm of baby-faced whiners. He has that self-assured quality that makes violence feel enjoyable without being sadistic or mean.
This particular film requires Diesel to don a ridiculous beard and act like a mournful Viking in its opening sequence and a series of flashbacks, and somehow this didn’t throw me out of the movie. He looks just intense enough to get away with these scenes, without overplaying it.
And the rest of the time, Diesel is just kind of enjoying being an immortal badass who keeps the world safe from the abuse of magic powers. There are the requisite hints that he wants to die and that he’s tired of this curse of eternal life, but he spends remarkably little time wallowing in self-pity.
And this movie mostly steers clear of the usual “if you hunt monsters you become a monster” jazz, or any real moral ambiguity to speak of. Apart from one or two brief “your good is our evil” type statements from evil witches, there’s no attempt to say that Kaulder is as bad as the creatures he hunts. Nope. He’s good, they’re evil. I think that’s one reason I enjoyed this film—despite its dark, “spooky” imagery, it’s not “dark” in the sense of trying to introduce some moral “shades of gray” stuff, just for the sake of feeling edgy and sophisticated.
And in fact, the big surprise in the film is that, as Kaulder finally explains to someone, “I’ve shown mercy.” He’s a Witch Hunter who doesn’t kill witches, unless he absolutely has to. He mostly tries to be kind. And even though the witches hate and fear him, he mostly responds to them with a kind of bemused levity, because he bears them no ill will and they can’t hurt him. At one point, a witch threatens to make Kaulder’s worst fears manifest, and he slowly confesses that his worst fear is... nothing. He’s not afraid of anything. Boom.
Kaulder is the sort of character who would be insufferably self-satisfied in the hands of most actors working today, or else suffused with a dreary inner darkness. But Vin Diesel just plays him straight, and turns him into someone who’s comfortable in his own skin. He’s unkillable, he’s doomed to keep hunting baddies until the end of time, and he likes to goof around and drive fast cars. Although, I said, there’s that undercurrent of rage and coiled violence.
The Last Witch Hunter is directed by Breck Eisner, who managed to turn the remake of George Romero’s rage-zombie movie The Crazies into a surprisingly great film. This time around, he’s doing a serviceable job of mixing horror imagery with brawls and knock-down action, although he’s somewhat hampered by a lot of the big set pieces being kind of generic CG animation.
I’m not going to oversell The Last Witch Hunter and claim that it’s a great movie—it’s not. It’s probably not even a good movie. But I enjoyed it for what it is. Probably a lot depends on how you feel about Vin Diesel. If you agree with me that he’s the closest thing we have now to a great 80s action hero, then this is a good vehicle for his brand of friendly menace. If you’re not Diesel-powered, then you can probably skip this one. (But you’re missing out, because Vin Diesel is great.)