Monday, November 2, 2015
“The Last Witch Hunter” (* OUT OF ****) casts spells that are far from inspired and mediocre at best. “Dungeons & Dragons” aficionado Vin Diesel toplines this ponderous, PG-13 rated pabulum as an 800-year old protagonist who struggles with the help of the Catholic Church to preserve a precarious peace between witches and mankind. Not only does Diesel appear incredibly miscast as an immortal “Highlander” type medieval warrior careening around contemporary New York City in a sports car, but also this witchy washy yarn doesn’t surpass superior witchcraft fantasies such as “Snow White and The Huntsman” (2012) and “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” (2013). The chief problem with this lavishly-produced, CGI-laden extravaganza is that it takes itself far too seriously. Apart from its dire shortage of humor, this dreary potboiler suffers from a dearth of quotable dialogue, banal adversaries, and second-rate supporting characters. Gifted thespians like Oscar-winner Michael Caine and Elijah Wood shrivel in lackluster roles as our hero’s sidekicks who are designated as ‘Dolans.’ “Sahara” director Breck Eisner and three scenarists, Cory Goodman of “Priest” along with Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless of “Dracula Untold,” have conjured up a synthetic storyline that generates neither charisma nor spectacle. Actually, they appear to have imitated the sensational Wesley Snipes’ vampire saga “Blade” right down to its rebirth of an ancient blood demon. Similarly, “The Last Witch Hunter” should have bristled with non-stop momentum, violently outlandish combat sequences, and a coherently contrived mythology. Instead, it degenerates into a dreary mumbo-jumbo melodrama. The most ambitious CGI scene pits our hero against a clumsy beast known as ‘the Sentinel,’ and he destroys behemoth with a sword as if he were a bullfighter straddling it. This unruly creature resembles a huge tiger that appears as it if were assembled from wicker and features a jet engine afterburner for its gullet. Our hero’s chief adversary is a hideous Witch Queen swarming with creepy crawlies who looks like she has spent too many centuries in a mud bath. Moreover, she boasts none of the imaginative flamboyance of Charlize Theron’s enchantress in “Snow White and the Huntsman.”
“The Last Witch Hunter” unfolds during the chilly Middle Ages. A group of stalwart souls armed with swords trudge through snow-swept, mountainous terrain to storm an eerie cluster of haunted trees. A despicable looking dame known as the Witch Queen (Julie Engelbrecht of the TV mini-series “The Strain”) inhabits this stronghold raging with fire and brimstone. Predictably, she isn’t glad to see these bearded gate-crashers with their religious iconography. This homicidal hag with her hatred for mankind has already decimated humanity with a black plague and incurred our hero’s wrath. The Witch Queen’s pestilence exterminated our hero’s wife and daughter, and his happier times with them are recounted in several flashbacks. When Kaulder (Vin Diesel with dwarfish dreadlocks) and the Witch Queen tangle, our fearless witch hunter skewers her with his flaming sword and finishes her off. Ironically, Kaulder survives this trial by combat, but his survival becomes a tribulation. “I curse you,” howls the wounded witch. “You’ll never know peace. You will never die.”
Afterward, “The Last Witch Hunter” shifts its setting from the 13th century to the 21st century. Our brawny, shaven-headed hero with neither dwarfish facial fuzz nor noggin fur prowls a passenger jet as it encounters foul weather. Actually, an ignorant young witch has smuggled a dangerous collection of runes aboard the aircraft, and she is to blame for the increment weather. Naturally, our erudite hero invokes his age-old wisdom and defuses these volatile artifacts. Nothing about this scene creates either suspense or excitement. As his own personal reward, Kaulder seduces a nubile stewardess before he sits down for the last time with his 36th Dolan (Michael Caine of “The Dark Knight”), a revered Catholic cleric who has spent the last 50 years chronicling our protagonist’s escapades for posterity. Incidentally, Dolans are members of a covert Axe and Cross society within the Catholic Church. Like Kaulder, they have devoted themselves to maintaining an uneasy truce between humans and witches. In “The Last Witch Hunter,” witches walk the earth with mankind, just as vampires did in “Blade,” but few people know about their phantasmagorical presence. Kaulder and the clerics act as intermediaries who work alongside the crafty Witch Counsel to keep these necromancers in line. Kaulder captures witches who illegally practice black magic, and the Witch Counsel entomb them in a maze of caves.
The 36th Dolan is poised to retire, and the 37th Dolan (Elijah Wood of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy) prepares to replace him. Although he saved the 37th Dolan from a coven of witches, Kaulder doesn’t immediately recognize this newcomer. Meantime, dramatic complications occur when the 36th Dolan appears to have been murdered under mysterious circumstances by a shape-shifting sorcerer. Kaulder discovers black magic at the scene of the crime and suspects that his ancient adversary, the Witch Queen, may have been playing possum all those years. Along the way, Kaulder recruits a ‘good’ witch Chloe (Rose Leslie from “Game of Thrones”) to help him sort out the mystery. Chloe’s claim to fame is her ability to cavort in dreams. Happily, she rescues Kaulder from one disastrous dream after another when the Witch Queen’s evil cronies attack him on several occasions. Our hero believes the solution to his quandary lies within his “Matrix” like dreams.
Ultimately, “The Last Witch Hunter” is largely incomprehensible gobbledygook. Eisner and his scribes have enormous problems mapping out their complex witchcraft mythology. They sprinkle bread crumbs of information about these conjurers throughout the muddled melodramatics, but seldom does anything about them come across as palatable. Two surprises occur during these sluggish shenanigans, but neither are genuine revelations if you have paid attention to the formulaic plot. The villains don’t stand out from the background, and the Witch Queen is stuck in the mud from the start. Eisner orchestrates several big-budget action scenes, but these emerge as sloppy exercises. Altogether, “The Last Witch Hunter” qualifies as hex-rated rubbish.