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Review: A bloody, relentless 'Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter'

More wit and less whacking might have improved the Timur Bekmambetov-directed mash-up tale of Lincoln's obsession with the undead.

June 21, 2012|By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • Benjamin Walker as Abraham LIncoln and Erin Wasson in "Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter."
Benjamin Walker as Abraham LIncoln and Erin Wasson in "Abraham Lincoln… (Stephen Vaughan / 20th Century…)

History remembers him as Honest Abe, Father Abraham, the Great Emancipator, even the Illinois Rail Splitter. But"Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter"? Who knew?

Now, the secret life of the 16th president of the United States and his passion for ridding the world of "immortal blood sucking demons" is revealed for all to see. In 3-D, no less.

It turns out that it wasn't just the lack of air-conditioning that made Lincoln miserable in the fetid air of 1860sWashington, D.C., it was all the undead he had to eradicate before the slaves could be freed and the Union made whole. That's enough to raise a sweat in any man.

All this information comes courtesy of Seth Grahame-Smith, who wrote the original mash-up novel as well as the screenplay of the new film relentlessly directed by Timur Bekmambetov. Given the subject matter, an exercise in delicacy and restraint was unlikely, but it's too bad that the film's concept is way more entertaining than what has ended up on-screen.

For the creative team behind this Abe endeavor has decided to take things completely seriously, to insist that these Lincoln vs. vampire shenanigans are, in the director's words, "a manifestation of the real drama, the real nightmare the country went through, which was slavery." Right.

And though care was taken to make sure that the film's Civil War props were authentic, "Vampire Hunter's" tone is unapologetically savage. Even the occasional runaway train is not enough to hide the fact that a movie consisting of multiple vampire attacks quickly gets repetitive and exhausting. Not to mention very, very bloody.

Bekmambetov, whose previous works include the Russian "Night Watch" and "Day Watch" and Angelina Jolie's "Wanted," is not one to shy away from the brutal. Although the film's use of 3-D is mostly pedestrian, it's at its most effective when those vampires and their grotesque dentures provide enough "open wide" moments to unnerve a team of Beverly Hills orthodontists.

"Vampire Hunter's" dramatic intentions are way ahead of its ability to execute them, so even capable actors such as Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Rufus Sewell don't make much of an impression. And star Benjamin Walker, in his first significant film role, doesn't do much more than look appropriately lantern-jawed and determined.

Before all these adults get their chance on-screen, back we go to Lincoln's childhood in Indiana, when he sees his best friend beaten for being black and watches in horror as local vampire Jack Barts (Marton Csokas) does in young Abe's beloved mother.

Lincoln vows revenge, but, being already dead, vampires are difficult to kill. This and other pertinent information is passed on to the young man by Henry Sturges (Cooper), a determined vampire hunter who knows and tells all.

Soon enough, the powerfully built former rail-splitter is swinging his custom-built silver-bladed ax like there was no tomorrow — which for the vampires who get in his way happens to be the truth.

Lincoln also reveals himself to be perhaps the only master of slick Asian martial arts moves — the film's fight scenes were choreographed by the Acting School of Fighting Kun-Do in far-off Kazakhstan — to be raised in an Indiana log cabin. Go figure.

Moving to Springfield, Ill., Lincoln disregards Sturges' advice to avoid personal entanglements by wooing the comely Mary Todd (Winstead) and re-establishing his childhood friendship with Will Johnson (Mackie).

He also comes to the attention of the one-named vampire-in-chief Adam (Sewell), said to be 5,000 years old, give or take. A pre-"Twilight" advocate of vampire rights, he will stop at nothing — nothing! — until "the whole country is ours."

We watch in increasing perplexity as the personal becomes political when our man in the White House discovers that Southern slavery is really all about providing healthy choices for hungry vampires. "We're all slaves to something," Adam tells him, which makes you wish all over again that vampire hunting involved more wit and less whacking. A whole lot less whacking.

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