Since the dawn of the 21st century, actor Vin Diesel has spent most of his time hopping back and forth between a pair of big, agreeably dumb action franchises: the wildly popular Fast/Furious series and the more cultish Riddick series. With The Last Witch Hunter, he takes a stab at adding a third franchise to the rotation. Alas, it's probably for the best if The Last Witch Hunter is the last Witch Hunter.
Roughly 800 years ago, the evil Witch Queen cast a horrible spell that came to be known as the Black Plague. A man named Kaulder (Diesel, sporting a magnificently phony-looking beard during the flashback scenes) was able to find and kill the queen (an act of revenge in the wake of the plague killing his family), but his victory came at a cost: just before her death, the queen cast a spell on Kaulder that made him immortal. Wait, what? That doesn't seem so awful. Anyway, fast-forward to the present, where we learn that Kaulder has devoted his long life to an organization called The Axe and the Cross, a group dedicated to preserving the delicate peace that exists between witches and humans. Most modern witches are peaceful folks who keep to themselves, but anytime a witch decides to attack a human, Kaulder is tasked with hunting them down.
Ever since losing his family, Kaulder has typically avoided serious relationships, instead settling for occasional flings with airline stewardesses. As such, his only real friend is the 36th Dolan (Michael Caine, The Prestige), the latest in a long line of priests who have devoted their lives to serving as Kaulder's personal assistant and helping The Axe and the Cross fulfill its mission. When the Dolan is murdered by a witch (and is subsequently replaced by a new Dolan played by Elijah Wood, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring), Kaulder embarks on another mission of revenge. Along the way, he discovers that a number of powerful witches may be working on a plot to bring the Witch Queen back to life.
Given Diesel's deep-rooted affection for Dungeons & Dragons and fondness for comic books, I have to assume that the mythology lurking beneath The Last Witch Hunter is deeper in the heads of the filmmakers (Diesel is one of the producers) than it seems to be in the movie. There are potentially interesting ideas here – the notion of tragic historical events being the work of witches, the uneasy truce that was formed between humans and witches, the way that witches employ magical stones for many of their wicked deeds, a legal system that involve tarot cards, the unusual history of The Axe and the Cross – but they often come across as half-baked or underexplored, getting hastily sketched out with a couple of quick lines before the plot shoves us along into the next by-the-numbers twist or obligatory action sequence.
The film is at its strongest (which is to say, at its most watchable) during the first half, when it plays out as a sort of dopey supernatural detective movie. Diesel is well-suited to that sort of that thing - he has a world-weary gravity that might have made him a great film noir icon a few decades ago (call me crazy, but there in moments in the Fast/Furious series when he reminds me of Robert Mitchum) – and has a relaxed charm goes a long way towards making this messy Constantine imitation pretty bearable. He also meshes nicely with the supporting cast; his gruffness offering nice counterpoint to the nervous timidity of Elijah Wood, the paternal warmth of Michael Caine (whose “there's more to life than hunting witches” speech is a reminder that the veteran actor can sell just about anything) and the fiery energy of Rose Leslie (playing a good witch with some useful abilities).
Unfortunately (but predictably), the half-interesting story eventually gets buried beneath a pile of loud, clumsy action sequences that aren't nearly as much fun as they ought to be. Breck Eisner (who gave us the modestly entertaining adventure movie Sahara and the not-terrible remake of The Crazies) struggles to find the right tone during the film's first half (he can't seem to decide whether this whole thing is slightly tongue-in-cheek or incredibly serious), and lets the second half slip into a monotonous series of battle scenes building up to a forgettable climactic encounter with a weak villain (the Witch Queen is one of those generic villains designed to make potential sequel baddies seem like a thrilling improvement). For a movie about Vin Diesel running around the globe murdering witches with a flaming sword, The Last Witch Hunter is awfully forgettable.
The Last Witch Hunter
Rating: ★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 101 minutes
Release Year: 2015