“President by day. Hunter by night.”
Directed by Timur Bekmambetov
Starring Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rufus Sewell
Young Abraham Lincoln’s (Walker) mother is murdered, and the pursuit of vengeance leads him into the world of vampires who stalk the night (and also the day, thanks to the liberal application of sunscreen) and rule the south. Trained by the enigmatic Henry Sturges (Cooper), he hunts monsters in the town of Springfield while becoming a lawyer and politician. Attracting the attention of the vampire leader Adam (Sewell), he moves up to taking on the vampires’ great prop – slavery – as President.
What’s wrong with it?
Combining the story of Abraham Lincoln with the tale of a vampire hunter isn’t completely boneheaded, but the film’s greatest problem is that it doesn’t combine the two. Lincoln basically gives up hunting once he gets into politics. In so doing, the film becomes a less well-made version of Lincoln for a while, loses some of the momentum it has built up in the first half and takes some of the kick out of the barnstorming final act.
The geography of certain scenes is baffling. In particular, the clash with Lincoln’s personal nemesis, Jack Barts, moves from a riverside straight into what appears to be a (CGI) horse stampede in progress, then across miles of open, riverless plains to a cliff.
The film rather shamelessly seems to blame vampires, at least in part, for everything bad in America’s history, from the perpetuation of slavery to the massacres of both native and colonial Americans, and even the death of Lincoln’s son (also, child murdered by vampires; fuck you, movie.) The Confederates are also depicted in league with the vampires, even deploying vampire soldiers.
The limitations of CGI let the production design down when it comes to the bigger set pieces.
Perhaps in deference to history, the film has very few female characters. Of those, Mary Todd Lincoln (Winstead) and Harriet Tubman (Jacqueline Fleming) are historical figures placed on pedestals, Todd Lincoln as a perfect wife and mother and Tubman as a woman of infinite wisdom and inner nobility. The last is Vadoma, Adam’s sister and enforcer, who is all leather and corsets and period costume bedamned.
Although a pretty good young Lincoln, Walker’s aging makeup makes him look like a waxwork of Liam Neeson.
What’s right with it?
The film is well-acted and beautifully designed and, where practically achieved, sumptuously produced.
There are some amazing action scenes, including a fight in a New Orleans ball room in which the vampires spring to the attack from mural paintings, and the climactic train battle.
The range of exciting variations on vampire death – fire, silver shot, door decapitations, axing – is stupendous.
How bad is it really?
Ultimately, the failure of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is its failure – astonishing given its title and sky-high concept – to realise that it is at its strongest when it is balls-to-the-wall crazy, and its insistence therefore on paying due deference to its historical characters, not by painting them in the virtues of its skewed setting, but in the virtues of history (and in most cases, in a hugely idealised version of their historical selves.)
Seriously; this is how you do it:
Best bit (if such there is)?
The train battle is the most successful of the big set pieces, combining the action combat the film does well with its best CGI. It is also dramatically successful, with the film having included just enough moments in the build up to make Speed’s apparent betrayal believable to the audience, as well as to the vampires.
What’s up with…?
- The silver plan? It seems to involve collecting all the silver in Washington, melting and reshaping it into shot and weapons, and transporting it to Gettysburg on foot within the space of a day.
- The train job? Since they blow up a bridge anyway, why did the vampires bother boarding the train?
- Henry Supermanning the rail tracks at the end? Seriously, if he can do that, Lincoln should have died of massive internal hemorrhage years ago,
Production values – The film is visually incredible, both in terms of its design and its practical effects. The CGI is a little less convincing, but has its moments. 6
Dialogue and performances – The cast is relatively low-profile (Cooper and Mackie are the big names now, in the light of their appearances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but at the time it was probably Sewell and Winstead) but pretty good. The dialogue is a bit more hit and miss, with a notable absence of anything much like regular speech. It’s all very declamatory, to greater or lesser effect. 11
Plot and execution – The film is really let down by its insistence on an almost slavish reverence for history in a film about Abraham Lincoln killing vampires with an axe. 15
Randomness – I can’t believe that I’m saying this about Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, but… I’m not sure that this film is random enough. It needs to be crazier; it works when it’s crazy. 14
Waste of potential – The devotion to history lets the film down, and prevents it being the romp it could have been as it tries to be Lincoln, which it was never going to be. 15