The movie’s unabashedly literal title, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” makes its intentions clear. This is the alleged secret history of how America’s 16th president battled bloodsucking creatures in between running for office and leading the country during the American Civil War.
If the film’s premise alone intrigues you enough to want to see it, you’ll probably have a fine time. If not, you’ll likely find yourself underwhelmed by the display.
To his credit, director Timur Bekmambetov tries hard to make the zany concept work. Combining romance, history, zombie fright flick scares and big action sequences, Bekmambetov is clearly eager to please everybody. The result is probably as good as a movie so heavy on gimmick can go, but it is also an uneven ride that never settles on a comfortable tone.
For the most part, the film shifts between an unknowingly self-serious nuance and video-game-adaptation styled action adventure that doesn’t see itself as so. Like the “The Matrix” sequels, the film’s sense of self-importance gets in the way of the simple fun it has to offer.
The action sequences and visuals are the best thing the film has going for it, providing thrills in the least likely of locales — one rousing brawl takes place between stampeding horses. Unfortunately, it’s enough not to wish the film had gone more along the lines of its quirky title and added some knowing humor to its heavy-handed take on a vampire-bashing president.
Based on a best-selling novel of the same title, whose author, Seth Grahame-Smith, also wrote the screenplay, “Vampire Hunter” deviates moderately from its source material. Compared to the already colorful book, the film presents even more of a grim rainbow, relying on spectacle after spectacle while donning a solemn look as a badge of honor.
We start off by witnessing a boy Lincoln (Benjamin Walker, a dead ringer for a young Liam Neeson) watching in horror as his mother is killed by a vampire. The murder was the result of an unfortunate domino effect caused by the young Lincoln’s act of helping another boy, an African-American named William Johnson (who is based on Lincoln’s real life personal valet and portrayed by Anthony Mackie) from being beaten by a slaver.
Lincoln grows up swearing vengeance against his mother’s murderer and the vampire community at large. His anger finds its luck when Lincoln is drunk at a bar, where he is sitting next to Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), a professional vampire hunter who then becomes the Mr. Miyagi to Lincoln’s Daniel-san.
Even this early on, the film never acknowledges its inherent silliness, making it difficult to go along with the absurdity of it all. The young Lincoln’s “training” contains some cheesy montage of him twirling an axe — his weapon of choice — around in dramatic slow motion. Like many other similar scenes, there’s no sense of the film winking as if to say “we know this is a completely useless method of fight practice, but it looks cool, right!?”
It’s a shame, because one, many of the scenes are indeed “cool” and two, you have got to be kidding me. As Sturgess provokes Lincoln to cut down a tree with one swing of his axe by imploring him to imagine it as something that “makes him angry,” the formality of the proceedings becomes unbearable.
Still, if you can separate yourself from the producer’s intended Gothic glum and the characters’ shallow depth, the film evokes enough pleasure to satisfy a B-flick enthusiast’s needs. Walker isn’t fully formed yet but makes for a promising lead, equally youthful and manly in his mannerisms. The other actors are seemingly also confused by the film’s tone, but at least have fun with what they’re dealt.
“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is a light action-adventure with unrealized comic undertones that sees itself as something more — much more. That is its undoing, but that doesn’t mean the audience can’t still have fun, laughing at — not with — it.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
Directed by Timur Bekmambetov
Starring Benjamin Walker, Rufus Sewell, Dominic Cooper
English with Indonesian subtitles