Anthony Mackie and Benjamin Walker in "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire… (Alan Markfield / 20th Century…)
Just when you think you know a president, you find out the guy was also crusader against legions of undead monsters. That's the premise behind "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," based on the mash-up novel by Seth Grahame-Smith (who also wrote the script) and directed by Timur Bekmambetov ("Wanted"). Alas, Honest Abe's newly revealed line of work isn't going over so well with movie critics, many of whom are panning the film.
The Times' Kenneth Turan concedes that "Vampire Hunter" offers an intriguing idea but says it fails in execution: "... [A]n 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." Bekmambetov's deadly serious approach and "unapologetically savage" tone grow wearisome, and in terms of acting, the film'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." Neither does newcomer Benjamin Walker in the title role.
For the New York Times' Manohla Dargis, the best thing about "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" may be its title -- "it’s too bad someone had to spoil things by making a movie to go with it," she writes. The concept "sounds funny, and for a while it plays like head-exploding gangbusters on screen," but eventually "the story’s fealty to its pulpy version of history (Mary Todd, etc.) drags it down." Bekmambetov, for his part, "has a knack for screen carnage." What he doesn't have, unfortunately, is "a strong sense of narrative rhythm and proportion."
Ty Burr of the Boston Globe doesn't mind that "Vampire Hunter" messes with history ("actually, that's the point"), but he does mind that "it's a sin against entertainment" and a "joyless, deafening cinematic headache." Although "Grahame-Smith is good enough at what he does to keep the gag going longer than you’d think," Bekmambetov is "the wrong man for the job," lacking the "wit and ... deft touch" needed to pull it off. Burr also says Walker "is actually very good as Lincoln, giving the part a youthful gravitas and keeping a straight face during the mayhem," but "the rest of the cast looks embarrassed to be here."
Colin Covert of the StarTribune in Minneapolis wins the award for best zinger, writing, "Here is the worst thing to happen to Abe Lincoln in a theater since he attended 'Our American Cousin.'" He adds that "the action is frenzy without form, the history is flat cliche, and there's no horror unless you count some of the performances. Everything is exactly wrong." And that's just the first paragraph.
Not every review stakes the film through the heart, however. The Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert, who admits he "went expecting to sneer," says the film is "a more entertaining movie than I remotely expected." He writes: "[It] has nothing useful to observe about Abraham Lincoln, slavery, the Civil War or much of anything else. ... But the film doesn't promise insights on such subjects. What it achieves is a surprisingly good job of doing justice to its title, and treating Lincoln with as much gravity as we can expect, under the circumstances."
Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle also gives a positive (if measured) review. He credits Grahame-Smith and Bekmambetov for playing the film straight rather than "getting smirky and campy and blowing out the joke in the first few scenes," and for wrapping things up "when the Lincoln/vampire gimmick is about to run out of gas."
Kudos notwithstanding, it would seem Mr. Lincoln makes a better president than he does an action hero. Our advice: Don't quit your day job, Abe.
Abraham Lincoln, America's first superhero?
Word of Mouth: "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" campaigns hard
"Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter": Fake history, but an honest Abe