Timur Bekmambetov is one filmmaker that can never be said to hold things back visually on any of his films. He has a style that can be called a combination of the Wachowski Brothers and Zack Snyder. Now one can read that and just groan. The Wachowskis and Snyder are not what one would call the paragon of the filmmaking community. What they do tend to do are create pop-friendly and consumer-friendly films. Whether thse films are of high quality is another thing altogether.
Bekmambetov is an interesting filmmaker from Kazakhstan (who could easily pass for what we imagine Genghis Khan to look like if he was still alive) whose brand of action films tend to focus on all style with little to no substance. For some audiences this just means dumb, brainless fare that has no reason to be paid to see, but I tend to think these same people who shout loudest about how these type of films are dumbing down it’s audiences secretly watch them like crack addicts once they’re on cable. Bekmambetov’s latest film, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, definitely follows his unique action and storytelling template he’s established with past films as Nightwatch, Daywatch and Wanted.
The film lives and dies on the simple conceit that one of the United States’ greatest Presidents was also vampire hunter of some skill. We see how an encounter with the vampire which led to the death of Abe’s mother (who had died of the condition known at the time as milk sickness) propels him through the intervening years to plot revenge on the same vampire. It’s during a failed attempt at revenge that he’s noticed by one Henry Sturgess (played by Dominic Cooper) who sees another potential vampire hunter in the young man (adult Lincoln played by one Benjamin Walker who could easily pass for a very young Liam Neeson). We get the usual training montage where Sturgess teaches Abe the finer points in vampire hunting and killing. It’s only proper that Abe would end up picking the rail-splitting axe he’s more comfortable in using than the more practical firearms.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is almost a straight adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel of the same name. Some minor subplots are discarded to keep the film moving in the one path the filmmakers and screenwriter (Grahame-Smith himself) decided to concentrate on. It’s this one thing that really pushes the film into a level that would win an audience to it’s cause or lose them altogether. This thing I speak of is the idea that slavery was due to the vampires who have set themselves as the so-called shadow aristocracy of the South and needed a ready source of food to keep themselves hidden from the humans. Yes, slavery was started and made into a near industrial level by vampires. This in turn moves Lincoln to move beyond just vengeance on the vampires who have affected his life from such an early age and instead go towards abolishing slavery from the country as a way to destroy the vampires once and for all.
These are heady ideas that doesn’t seem to fit well with historical facts and figures. Yet, the film does a good enough job of keeping things serious with just the right amount of over-the-top action sequences that Bekmambetov has become well-known for. One such action sequence involves Lincoln and a vampire having a chase scene involving a huge horse stampede. They fight in and amongst the stampeding equines and then on and above them. It’s a sequence that’s equal parts exciting and ludicrous that one just has to either sit back and enjoy it or stand up and walk out. Which is the film in a nutshell. One either goes all-in on the film’s story or folds mentally.
This is not to say that the film has no flaws. It has some glaring flaws that threatened to push the film over the edge of being a fun action flick into all-out dreck. For starters the vampires themselves made for good villains, but Rufus Sewell as the leader of the American vampires (who happens to call himself Adam) looked bored with the whole proceedings. There were brief moments when the charm that we expect from vampire leaders show, but it’s far and few between. Most of the time Sewell looks to be just standing in a particular scene looking bored. The rest of his clan of vampires are no better though Marton Csokas asBart, one of Adam’s lieutenants and main supplier of slaves, did such an over-the-top performance that one wouldn’t be surprised to catch a glimpses of scenery stuck between his teeth.
It’s really the performance by Benjamin Walker in the title role that keeps the film afloat. He has a commanding presence on the screen and he’s able to be convincing as Lincoln both as a young man and then as the elder statesman (some very good old man make-up effects that put the elder Peter Weyland make-up in Prometheus to shame). Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Mary Todd Lincoln also does a good job in what could’ve been a thankless role, but she didn’t look out of place in this peculiar period piece.
The action sequences themselves were choreographed well even though Bekmambetov was still relying a lot of his own brand of slo-mo to accentuate the cool kills Lincoln makes with his silver-coated axe. After awhile this gimmick began to get repetitious, but then again one shouldn’t be surprised to see such a thing over-used in a Bekmambetov film. If one has seen his three previous films then they should know what to expect. Yet, even this doesn’t detract from what this film ultimately turned out to be and that’s just plain fun despite lacking in the acting in certain roles and the sensational, some would say tasteless, use of the Civil War and slavery to tell a story about a vampire-killing President.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter will not make filmmakers like Christopher Nolan, Lars Von Trier and Michael Haneke quake in their shoes. It’s not a film that was made to win awards (though I can see it being nominated for best fight sequence in the MTV Movie Awards). What this film does seem to succeed enough in doing is be a fun and exciting film that rises above it’s source material on the strength of it’s lead and the action created by it’s filmmaker. For a genre film it certainly did a better job of mashing together disparate ideas than last year’s Cowboys & Aliens. Maybe if this film is enough of a success we’ll finally get some movement in the planned film adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s other literary classic mash-up: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. One can only hope.