Gemma Arterton is Gretel and Jeremy Renner is Hansel in "Hansel &… (David Appleby )
From a story once passed down in the oral tradition comes a version transmitted by repetitive audio-visual assault in "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters."
The notorious folkloric tale about lost little siblings encountering the worst kind of sugar-coated bad news has been given a jokey R-rated once-over by Norwegian writer-director Tommy Wirkola, whose calling card as a purveyor of wink, wink, splatter, splatter entertainment was the 2009 undead Nazis romp "Dead Snow."
There's little to suggest, however, that shifting from zombies to witches has shaken his love of obliterating bodies by any means necessary.
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"Hansel & Gretel" is the latest attempt to graft action revisionism onto classic fairy tales, à la "Snow White and the Huntsman." The central premise is simple and crude, but not without promise.
Having grown up from their traumatic origins as near-victims of a cannibalistic witch, bro (Jeremy Renner) and sis (Gemma Arterton) are now cover-model-ready mercenaries in tight leather, ridding the countryside of cackling, cracked-face nasties with an assortment of pump-action weaponry. It's therapy of a sort, if you were, say, the NRA's Wayne LaPierre.
But a recent spate of child kidnappings in the pair's wooded stomping grounds suggests a more devious-minded scheme in witchdom. Leading the villainy is grand witch Muriel, who, because she's played by angular beauty Famke Janssen, gets at least a few scenes looking like a raven-haired avatar of gorgeous evil when not done up like rotted, moldy plaster.
Janssen can do more with an ugly mask, however, than an unvarnished Arterton, who struggles to transform her porcelain blankness into believably tough expressions.
Renner, meanwhile, making a run at holding the most franchises at one time ("Mission: Impossible," "Bourne," "Avengers"), keeps up his credible mix of physicality and presence. But it's hard to look at this stunt-heavy gig as little more than a workout video for future action star trainees.
It's easy to chastise a piece of vigorous hack-work like "Hansel & Gretel" for its rote mayhem, viscera fetishism and — surprisingly, for a movie produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay — general witlessness.
The anachronistic touches intended to push the movie into comedic areas — mostly to do with cursing — fall flat, save for the surprise appearance of the 19th century version of a defibrillator, which is weird enough to earn a giggle, and the amusing notion that Hansel now needs insulin shots.
But what galls is that for all the perspiration in jazzing up an old yarn, there's not a whiff of originality in how Wirkola engages with the perverse pleasures enshrined by the Grimm brothers, two of their era's shrewdest storytellers.
There's nothing half as clever here as the original story's moment of witch-vanquishing triumph, or as creatively alluring as the idea of a gingerbread house, or as eerily disturbing as the Grimms' undertone of wishful matricide.
Instead it's the usual humans versus special effects, anatomy-splitting rim shots and lame one-liners, which baked together make for a familiarly sour confection indeed.
'Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters'
MPAA rating: R for for strong fantasy horror violence and gore, brief sexuality/nudity and language
Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes
Playing: In general release
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