by Philip Price
“The Last Witch Hunter” is one of those movies that, were Vin Diesel not coming off a more prominent period in his career, would star Nicolas Cage in the titular role. What that says about the actual state of Diesel's career outside of the ‘Fast & Furious’ franchise is up for debate, but what is undeniable is the guy at least has some modicum of charisma even if it only extends so far. With that charisma he has chosen to portray an 800-year old witch hunter that operates within a film that feels all too familiar and all too like it should be released in the doldrums of January when the weather outside matches the dark, wet and dreary aesthetic of the film. Instead, Summit has decided to release the film around Halloween in seeming hopes that it may connect on a festive level, but folks who flock to Diesel's follow-up to the biggest entry in his ‘Fast’ franchise won't find the actor giving us the knowingly cheesy tone of that over-the-top action spectacle or even any solid action as everything about “The Last Witch Hunter” is messy and incoherent. This isn't to say the film has no redeeming qualities as some of the character design (mainly that of the Witch Queen) is pretty interesting and the costume design is sleek even if the palette director Breck Eisner is painting on is a grainy one. This is more or less to say that Diesel shows little range in his performance, but his jackets are nice. It doesn't help that half an hour in one can fairly easily tell where things are going story-wise and while what is hinted at more or less turns out to be true it's as if screenwriters Cory Goodman, Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless (yes, it took three writers to compose this slop) knew their script was too predictable and so they began throwing in random obstacles and twists that only end up making the film all the more confusing and all the more stupid. I hate to go into a movie doubting that it will provide anything of value, but if “The Last Witch Hunter” exceeded anything it was the expectation of just how generic and forgettable it would be.
Beginning in the 12th century we are introduced to a bearded Diesel as Kaulder, a witch-hunter, who, along with his comrades, is seeking to destroy the Witch Queen (Julie Engelbrecht) once and for all so that mankind may never again fall under one of her spells. Of course, Kaulder comes to be the last man left in his brigade and thus the last hope for killing the Queen. He gets to her, but not before she is able to curse him with eternal life. In the wake of this curse, Kaulder is tasked with the job of coming between the covens of New York City and their goal to destroy humanity by way of a horrific plague. As we learn from Dolan (Michael Caine), there has been a pact made between witches and humans that witches are more than welcome to do as they please so long as they swear not to harm any humans. Most witches respect these rules (or so we're told in voiceover), but others can't help but to see themselves as the superior beings they truthfully are and so Kaulder still has a gig from time to time. Kaulder has formed an alliance with the Catholic Church who designate a "Dolan" to him in order to keep track of his activity and adventures. Caine is the current Dolan upon our initial meeting with Kaulder, his 36th since striking up this working relationship, but all of that is set to change as Caine's character is retiring and Elijah Wood's character will be taking over as the thirty-seventh Dolan. Things take a turn for the unexpected when Caine's Dolan is found dead the morning after passing his torch on to Wood's character. Unable to see this simply as a coincidence, Kaulder begins investigating the death and comes to learn a secret from his past that will definitely be coming back to haunt him. He teams up with a dreamwalking witch named Chloe (Rose Leslie) who might just be able to help him uncover exactly what that secret is. In short, there is a whole bunch of mumbo jumbo there in the middle that doesn't make much sense while the climactic end scene is more a rehash of what we've seen before rather than a culmination of it all.
With this type of film it's easy not to expect much, but even with these tempered expectations “The Last Witch Hunter” is a disappointment. With everything it has to offer, including appearances from credible talent like Caine and Wood, it would seem that Witch Hunter might intentionally be positioning itself as something of a guilty pleasure. A guilty pleasure in the sense that there was no way something like this would ever be held in high regard, but that it might offer enough small moments of pure entertainment and adrenaline-pumping action to be enjoyable. There is nothing to enjoy here though, unfortunately, as Diesel is taking himself completely serious while there is nothing innovative or interesting about the story and the look of the film is as generic as can be. Even the score from Steve Jablonsky feels tired and recycled which is really the trouble with the film as a whole. What's worse is the film had a real opportunity to do something interesting with its premise and instead of coming up with anything of value or even remotely insightful pertaining to its 800-year old central character it resorts to cheesy little anecdotes for him to spout every now and then just so we're reminded how much he's actually seen. There are off comments made about Hitler or the beginning of New York City being built that hint at something interesting, something that might have actually formed Kaulder into a summation of all he's seen, but instead of delving into any of this Diesel resorts to simply referring to Caine as "kid" and that is apparently enough to remind us of his age. Heck, if they go ahead with the sequel that has already been planned for this thing the best option might be one of the adventures Kaulder had in the meantime between being granted eternal life and what we see in this film, but instead I'm guessing we'll get another modern-day set parable that teaches Kaulder a lesson of how he only thought he knew everything about the witching world, but has only scratched the surface. Pass.
And so, who is Kaulder? What is a guy who has seen more of history than any person ever like? Well, he's pretty much Vin Diesel, except this guy had a beard and hair at one point. That's all we know, that's all we're given sans the constant flashbacks to the 12th century that tell us Kaulder once had a wife and child that he lost to the witches. Of course, it's been a few centuries so he's moved on, but only in the way that he sleeps with stewardesses and shows them the door the next morning. Does Kaulder use protection you ask? Or does he have a million tiny eternal witch hunters running around somewhere? The film doesn't address these questions, but this is the random crap one begins considering when the story we're presented with isn't enough to hold our attention. There are hints of Diesel giving into the cheese factor at certain points, but he never does and thus he never looks like he's having any fun. This is serious actor Vin Diesel and he's trying his damnedest to make this thing as legit as he can, but there's simply nothing about “The Last Witch Hunter” that could be considered immersive or even stylish much less very good. Of the supporting actors, Wood is basically a walking witch encyclopedia present only to give us exposition and explanations as he dips in and out of the story so often he hardly feels necessary. Everything Wood conveys could have been done through the relationship between Caine and Diesel's characters which is a much more appealing combo if only for the strangeness of it. Then there is Leslie as Chloe who is more or less fine in the role of the eventual sidekick and supposed love interest, but her and Diesel never gel. There is nothing here to suggest any chemistry between the two beyond the abilities they possess to take down the bad guy and that isn't enough to base a relationship off of. If you saw them smooching in the trailer and therefore already expect things to move forward here, don't, because apparently that was cut so as to be developed in the "Next Adventures of Kaulder & Chloe" that may as well get picked up for a full season next fall on CBS because they have a better chance of surviving there than on the big screen again.