Promoting his off-season fantasy Season of the Witch a few years back, a deadly earnest (or beautifully pranking) Nicolas Cage referred to his then-current acting style as “nouveau shamanic,” while professing his great love for the movie’s disreputable sub-genre. A similar brand of inscrutable sincerity informs the new Vin Diesel vehicle The Last Witch Hunter, which riffs on the gravel-voiced star’s apparent taste for Dungeons & Dragons and reworks it into a creaky action-fantasy thriller. It may not be a good film, but it’s made—or at least, acted—with a bizarre affection that goes a long way toward being endearing.
Though rooted in a near-fatal cocktail of misogyny and religiosity, Witch Hunter’s medieval-set prologue has an off-kilter, Herzog-by-way-of-RPG grandeur, with Diesel’s zealous warrior Kaulder grunting and glowering and sporting enough braided yaks on his chin to shame an entire generation of artisanal barkeeps. He and his band of male do-gooders wage pitch battle against an almighty Evil Witch (played by European actress Julie Engelbrecht, natch), who appears to derive most of her power from millions of angry Slipknot fan t-shirts. Still, queen bee is understandably pissed at the uninvited sausage party, and duly curses Kaulder to a life eternal before she’s dispatched into interdimensional purgatory.
Were the film to have left its star in middle-age garb (which he wears surprisingly well) and had him drift dragons, fight evil and chase milady honeys for the next 90 minutes, it might have been strange-movie heaven; or at least a fitting analogue to the modern-day immortal he’s become in the increasingly-ridiculous Furious franchise. But studios demand recognizable product, so Witch Hunter swiftly cuts to contemporary New York and its clean-shaven, Esquire-attired hero. Here, Kaulder spends his never-ending days ensuring a peace between witches and humans, diffusing potentially dangerous situations when he’s not hooking up with stewardesses (yeah, he calls them stewardesses.) According to the movie’s lore, witches may exist and practice good magic, so long as it’s never used on humans—where’s the fun in that, right?—while the black arts are strictly outlawed. A sort of supernatural cop, Kaulder works with a secret religious order of mortal men known as the Axe and Cross, while liaising with a good witch council—who, in the kind of lame joke the film often traffics in, “look like an ’80s band.”
The juxtaposition of modern-day Manhattan and an alternate dimension threatening to disrupt its precarious balance is rich territory, both thematically and aesthetically, conjuring the urban-magical tension of New York-set horrors as diverse as Polanski’s Rosemary’s Babyand Michael Winner’s gates-of-hell schlocker The Sentinel. The ever-reliable Michael Caine, who drops in to deliver some trademark instant gravitas as Kaulder’s outgoing mentor, at times gives the film a touch of old school ’70s supernatural flavour: well, Exorcist II, anyway, if not quite the original.
Alas, The Last Witch Hunter isn’t a proper witch-witch movie, the kind that empathizes with the persecution of society’s outcasts and turns their plight into a subversive tract on empowerment—you’ll need to wait for the deliriously evil corrective of Robert Eggers’ The VVitch for that fix. No, this is the type of movie that has Ciara do one of those stock slowed-down-to-a-crawl pop covers of a “dark” rock standard over the credits (Here, the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black,” and actually pretty cool as these things go.) The movie’s not ideologically harmful, yet it’s not imaginative in the way it negotiates the world it creates, either. Trudging along like a late-night role-player in which the most obvious plot beats are checked off, Witch Hunter isn’t much more than a low-level actioner in which Kaulder must defeat the minions conspiring to resurrect the evil queen. Along for the ride are Elijah Wood, who wears a priest’s robes so well it nearly makes up for his undercooked character, and Downton Abbey’s Rose Leslie, playing a thankless white-magic foil who barely offsets the filmmakers’ worrying male worldview (turns out all a witch hunter needs is… the love of a good witch.) The film offers no surprises as it moves towards the inevitable showdown between Kaulder and the Evil Queen, which isn’t so big a deal had it been a little more fun getting there.
In the absence of playing things for camp (a refreshing point of difference, admittedly), Witch Hunter delivers straight-faced action that wants for, well, magic, marching to a click-track like so much of Steve Jablonsky’s monotonous, Transformers-lite score. This is a malleable premise, but the uninspired collaboration between writers Burt Sharpless, Matt Sazama (Dracula Untold) and Cory Goodman (Priest), along with director Breck Eisner (The Crazies remake), fails to find the skewed wonder that, say, Guillermo del Toro orchestrated in his cities-on the-brink-of-the-underworld Hellboy jaunts. That’s a shame, because some of the stuff here—like the Ghostbusters-esque clouds engulfing Central Park, or the lushly-saturated digital shots of psychic planes breaking through into reality—is visually arresting.
Thank goodness for Diesel, at least, whose gruff D&D detective style makes you want to like this, no matter how underpowered or poorly realized it is. While it’d be easy to scoff at his pet rock visage leading a magical fantasy, the actor’s immeasurable sincerity and on-screen charm sell even the worst parts of the film, which might be part of the problem: Diesel is too big for the movie he’s in. It comes as no surprise that the final shot of the film sees Kaulder and his newly-minted sidekick step into a black sportscar and accelerate at high speed down a Manhattan avenue—no doubt spiriting its star back to the franchise in which he rules the mortal plane.