A vampire hunter by any other name ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Monday, July 2, 2012

A vampire hunter by any other name

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
My rating:

So this movie has its genesis in the novel of the same name written by Seth Grahame-Smith, who kicked off the whole literary mash-up craze with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; a craze that hinges a lot on giggle-inducing titles such as the above. I may not be American but I have a decent grasp of world history, and I know well enough that to take a revered figure like Abraham Lincoln and turn him into a badass superhero of the vampire-hunting variety is to take a pretty huge liberty with it. But not being American means it's not my place to opine on whether or not this movie - independent of the novel on which it is based - does respect to the real-life person, or the historical events of which he played a pivotal part.

But I'm kinda suspecting that it doesn't.

Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) was a young boy when his mother was murdered by Jack Barts (Marton Csokas). Nine years later, his attempt at revenge fails when he discovers that Barts is in fact a vampire - from whom he is rescued by a man named Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper). Sturgess tells him that vampires exist in every corner of American society, and trains him in the arts and skills of vampire-hunting - in particular, with Abe's trusty silver-bladed axe. Upon completion of his training, Abe travels to Springfield, Illinois, where he befriends storekeeper Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson), reunites with his childhood friend Will Johnson (Anthony Mackie), and meets Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), with whom he falls in love despite Sturgess' admonishments against emotional attachments. And when he learns that the vampires - led by a wealthy plantation owner named Adam (Rufus Sewell) - maintain the Southern slave trade as a means to keep them supplied with human victims, Abe decides to seek more effective means of fighting them than killing them one at a time: a career in public office, that will lead him to becoming President of the United States.

When I reviewed Cowboys and Aliens last year, I noted that its biggest failing was to take a goofy premise - and title - completely seriously. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is another mash-up with an even sillier title, and also takes itself with 100% seriousness. But the devil is in the details; whereas it didn't work at all in the 2011 Jon Favreau-directed would-be blockbuster, this is a different animal altogether. If one of the elements of your genre mash-up is history, and as weighty an historical event as the American Civil War at that, then the straight-faced approach to blending it with a supernatural action movie is probably best. The movie isn't ill-served by not being tongue-slightly-in-cheek fun as Cowboys and Aliens should have been. It is ill-served by being cheesy.

Oh my goodness, it is soooo cheesy. Its trailers already highlight Abe's axe-fu skills, twirling that farming implement around like he's Bruce Lee with a nunchaku. And it never gives an explanation for how Abe's strength and agility can achieve superhuman levels, such that he can go toe-to-toe with vampires (and even survive having a horse thrown at him). The entire first half-hour is ridiculously overheated, with scenes like Abe's and Mary's courtship filmed with the same hyperactive energy as his vampire-hunting fight scenes. And cinematographer Caleb Deschanel is a five-time Oscar nominee, but here his work is colour-treated with that conspicuously old-timey sepia tone often seen in the finest music videos. You know what's another of last year's summer blockbuster-wannabes that this movie reminds me of? Scott Stewart's non-masterpiece, Priest.

Which this one is a fair bit better than, owing to not being as aggressively stupid. But it's no intellectual luminary either. Just from its Wikipedia entry alone, it appears that Grahame-Smith's novel is reasonably intelligent and circumspect in its fidelity to Abraham Lincoln's recorded life - which makes it hard to believe that he adapted his own novel for this movie's screenplay. There is hardly a line of dialogue in here that isn't on-the-nose, beginning from Abe's mother's slogan-worthy proclamation that "until all men are free, we are all slaves" a good 45 years before the Emancipation Proclamation. There's no mention in the novel of such movie-friendly sidekick characters as Joshua Speed or Will Johnson (who gets bonus sidekick points for being black). The entire first half is just your run-of-the-mill supernatural action flick with a slight period twist - a 19th-century Blade, as it were.

And the second half, when Abe starts pursuing politics in earnest, should have been when it starts getting interesting. After all, we're not here to watch any old vampire hunter movie, we're here to watch a U.S.-President-as-a-vampire-hunter movie. But instead, here is where the movie slows down interminably; the overheated CGI-heavy fight scenes are replaced with a series of dull montages that sum up Lincoln's entire political career up to the beginning of the Civil War. Which is not only dull in that Lincoln does precisely no vampire-hunting during that entire period, it also ignores practically everything about the period that makes it such a watershed moment in American (and yes, world) history. I said that I wouldn't comment on how respectful the movie is towards history that has no real national significance for me. But the impression I'm left with, from a film titled Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, is that there isn't much about this particular vampire hunter that makes him Abraham Lincoln.

About the only things I enjoyed were the action scenes, directed with as much over-the-top verve as Timur Bekmambetov's last, Wanted - although I enjoyed that 2008 James McAvoy-Angelina Jolie starrer much more than this one. This one, I can't help but pronounce it a failure to fully exploit its premise. It disregards practically everything about Lincoln's life and times in favour of putting an axe-slinging superhero in his place, and ignores the entire social, political and economic realities of the Civil War in favour of a generic supernatural action movie. (It also wastes some pretty good performances from Benjamin Walker and Mary Elizabeth Winstead - the latter in particular, who deserves far more than a generic flower vase role like this one.) I'll leave it to others to comment on how this movie treats issues and themes that deserve a lot more respect than being glossed over, even in a goofy genre mash-up like this. What I do know is, a movie called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter really ought to be more than just a 19th-century Blade.

Expectations: oh, I already know it's gonna be good


inthejems said...

I agree with you. This movie was completely cheesy. Being that abraham lincoln is one of americas heroes they didnt really do him justice. The movie was too fast paced. I believe that there was minimal character development. While i know to most people lincolns life is comon sense they needee to go more in dept with his character. They were presenting him as something far more vicious and heroic than we are normally used to, and as an audience we needed to find a better place to relate to him first... You know before he started killing all those vampires. Oh and also all the slow motion in the movie. What was that about? And the corny dialog? Idk i was laughing a lot through the film. I thought of abe as a badass but all the cheese made me think otherwise. And the thing is, they were trying to make him look badass- being a.vampire hunter and all. It didnt work for me. It wasnt a painful movie to watch. But i didnt like it for the reasons intended by the creators. I just found it really hilarious seeing a tough president act in such a way with all the slow motion.

The only thing im looking forward to doing though is reading the novel because i have heard great things about it.