Sunday, June 24, 2012

War Between the States (And Vampires): ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER

In theory, a big summer spectacle that posits fantastical secret information about a famous American president is a great idea. As a nation, we have no shortage of myths and fictions about our leaders, stories we tell to validate our own worldviews, to view our current political climate on a smooth, uncomplicated continuum with the past. In practice, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter can’t quite live up to its title. Just the idea of our sixteenth president, tall, bearded, and with a stovepipe hat perched on his head, is enough to make me smile, but this isn’t a comedy in any way shape or form.  This is a deathly self-serious production, a lumpy fictional biopic that devotes most of its runtime to young Mr. Lincoln’s increasing hidden knowledge about vampires and their insidious plots within our nation’s nineteenth-century borders, taking time out of its sloppy chronicling of Lincoln’s real-world rise to the presidency for setpieces of vampire-hunting action. It could have used a dash of wit to help it go down easier.

In Seth Grahame-Smith’s script (based on his novel, unread by me), Lincoln’s mother dies after an encounter with a vampire. Years later, looking for revenge, Abraham (Benjamin Walker) tries to shoot his mother’s killer in the head and is surprised to find the man pop back up baring fangs. The future president is saved and confronted by Henry (Dominic Cooper), a confident vampire hunter who agrees to help the young man learn the ways of destroying these creatures that roam the land, hiding in plain sight. So Lincoln, studying to become a lawyer, marrying Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and debating Stephen Douglas (Alan Tudyk) on his way up in a promising political career, happens to moonlight as a stone-cold killer of the undead. This is a future president played as action hero, as superhero. He spins an ax and hacks off the heads of vampires, usually after acrobatic scenes of kicking, spinning, and punching that slow down into stylish slow-mo to better appreciate just how much of a smackdown Lincoln’s giving these monsters.

Director Timur Bekmambetov first made a splash in Russia with his grimy, gory modern-day vampire action movies Night Watch and Day Watch, so it’s no real surprise that his focus in Vampire Hunter is mostly on the bloody spectacle. He thinks it’s fun to have vampires clashing with Abe Lincoln and his allies – like a shopkeeper (Jimmi Simpson) and an escaped slave (Anthony Mackie) who are loyal hangers-on – in one-on-one combat and in elaborately staged action sequences of a most modern kind. And it is, for a while. Lincoln’s first hunts are well staged and his enemies are well-designed, slobbering, blue-grey things. This is an action movie first and foremost, and so it wobbles around when it reaches for slightly more ambitious elements that come into play as the march of real-world time drags Lincoln and the film’s plot into the American Civil War.

Lincoln hangs up his vampire-slaying ax and focuses on being a president, but the leader of American vampires (Rufus Sewell), who happens to be a big-time slave-owner as well, ruling over his kind from a swampy plantation, strikes a deal with Jefferson Davis (John Rothman) to allow his unstoppable supernatural soldiers to join the Confederate army. And so, Lincoln is brought back into the business of killing vampires, using his knowledge to help provide the Union with a strategy to beat back these scary creatures. Of course, none of this has anything useful or insightful (or even slightly interesting) to say about Lincoln, or war, or slavery. Essentially, all of the above are just the plot points on which to hang marginally effective CGI action and destruction, as the whole vampire-as-metaphor-for-slavery thing never really comes into clear focus and the surprisingly clever use for Harriet Tubman (Jaqueline Fleming) and her involvement in all of this straight-faced goofiness is just a nice barely-there subplot.

I went into Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter expecting nothing more than a historical figure hunting vampires, and I suppose I got that, didn’t I? Lincoln definitely hacks away at some supernatural beings during the course of his lifetime as told by this particular fiction. But it’s all contained in such a well-made bore of a movie – a stiff, intermittently stylish dullness – that it’s hard to get too excited about much of anything that happens between the opening scene and the closing credits. The actors are all convincing and the special effects are about as good as you could expect, but the movie is starved for wow moments of any kind. It’s both too much and not enough.

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