Dazzling visuals and fun supernatural brawls can't save The Last Witch Hunter from a cliché plot and uneven Vin Diesel performance.
Centuries back, a ruthless dark magic wielder, the Witch Queen, unleashed the Black Death on humanity - killing millions. To protect humankind, a group of valiant warriors journeyed into the Witch's den to destroy the Queen and her coven. Many were killed in the battle but one man, Kaulder (Vin Diesel), who had lost his wife and daughter to the Black Death, managed to subdue the Queen. However, as Kaulder delivered a fatal blow, the witch cursed him with eternal life - before she crumbled into ash.
Unable to die, Kaulder and his holy parters, the Dolans, spent the next seven centuries hunting dark magic wielders and other evil creatures. Thanks to Kaulder's tireless work, a tenuous peace is brokered between the Dolans and good witches who want to co-exist, unseen, with humans. Together, the witch counsel and the Dolans wield Kaulder as a weapon against threats to humanity and witchkind alike - until a malevolent coven appears in modern day New York City, intent on unleashing a second plague, and ushering in a new age of dark magic.
In a time when most films are remakes, reboots, or sequels to established franchises, The Last Witch Hunter attempts an original supernatural story - albeit one that borrows familiar cliches and tropes from prior action-horror films (as well as Diesel's own Dungeons and Dragons game character, Melkor). Director Breck Eisner (Sahara and The Crazies) crafts an imaginative world, full of arresting imagery and intriguing mythology; sadly, that foundation is undermined by melodrama, unconvincing performances, and underwhelming plot "twists." The Last Witch Hunter offers enough slick action and sharp visuals to warrant a trip to the theater for supernatural horror and/or Vin Diesel fans but casual filmgoers will have trouble finding enough redeeming value (or overall invention) in Eisner's movie.
Even though The Last Witch Hunter story is "original," it's also an extremely run-of-the-mill tale at every turn. Audiences will predict most plot beats and character arcs ahead of onscreen reveals. The world-building, both lore and visual imagery, is The Last Witch Hunter's most memorable contribution - with horrifying creature designs that make the dark witches downright frightening. As a result, where the film's storyline is a passable (but half-cooked) impression of superior supernatural hunter tales, the depiction of its malevolent baddies is a welcome surprise - injecting some bite back into witch mythology (after decades of green skin, hooked noses, and pointy hats).
For that reason, despite a starring turn from Vin Diesel, the witch queen and black magic are the real standouts in Eisner's movie. The queen, portrayed by French actress Julie Engelbrecht, is limited by bland evil-doer dialogue - though thanks to disturbing production design and art direction from Julie Berghoff and Tom Reta, respectively, the witch (along with depiction of powers, spells, and curses, in general) elevate The Last Witch Hunter with striking cinematography and unique implementation of supernatural folklore.
Similarly, Rose Leslie makes the most of Chloe - a benevolent witch caught between Kaulder and the black magic coven. Leslie brings the same balance between blunt strength and shrewd charm that she perfected as Ygritte in Game of Thrones; yet, the witch heroine is thinly drawn at the script level, resulting in a likable performance that is fettered by toneless romance and "not all witches are bad" platitude. Academy Award-winner Sir Michael Caine is set up for the same low-bar success as Father Dolan. Eisner establishes a compelling relationship between Dolan and Kauldor - especially as The Last Witch Hunter's central mystery unfolds. Nonetheless, Caine is underutilized at the expense of forced plot points that convolute the story more than they contribute to its success.
A string of entertaining Fast and Furious entries, as well as fan-favorite turns in Riddick and Guardians of the Galaxy, have bought Vin Diesel a lot of goodwill in Hollywood and among moviegoers. Unfortunately, in spite of good intentions and passion for the project, Diesel is a weak link in The Last Witch Hunter. Eisner endeavors to present Kaulder as a layered hero - a legendary warrior, with a storied past, who is going through the motions after centuries of maintaining peace (and watching friends grow old and die). The actor relishes in tough guy moments, but Kaulder requires a level of sincerity and restraint that Diesel struggles to convey. It's not a bad portrayal, but the combination of familiar 'tortured hero cursed with eternal life' tropes, and Diesel's uneven work in the leading role, squander Kaulder's potential as a noteworthy franchise hero.
That said, even though Kaulder falls short in paying off the screen time Eisner dedicates to developing his witch hunter as a tormented hero, the film provides Diesel with a steady stream of action beats to keep viewers engaged. Supporting characters (like Elijah Wood's 37th Dolan) and villains (most notably Ólafur Darri Ólafsson's Belial) don't fare any better in the grand scheme, but fresh use of curses and spells creates a platform for exciting hand-to-magic fights, in which Diesel gets to flex tried-and-true action chops, offer fun escapism for viewers who aren't deterred by the movie's overarching shortcomings.
Still, for viewers who expect more in their supernatural action-horror, The Last Witch Hunter is full of plot holes, undercooked characters, and familiar clichés that are inferior to their inspirations in nearly every way. Given the amount of time that Eisner dedicates to exploring Kaulder and Chloe's troubles, it's apparent the filmmaker was striving for something more ambitious; nevertheless, the final film is standard style over substance - rarely digging below surface level action and plot. Dazzling visuals and fun supernatural brawls can't save The Last Witch Hunter from a cliché plot and uneven Vin Diesel performance.
The Last Witch Hunter runs 106 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence and frightening images. Now playing in theaters.
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