For better or worse, THE LAST WITCH HUNTER, the latest film starring Vin Diesel (and his first non-franchise work—meaning FAST & FURIOUS or RIDDICK films—in nearly 10 years), starts out remarkably strong. In a sequence set 800 years in the past, Diesel's witch-hunting Kaulder is bearded, long-haired and wielding a broad sword, alongside a team of fellow hunters going after the nastiest of them all, the Witch Queen (Julie Engelbrecht) in her forest lair after she has unleashed the Black Death upon on the world, which resulted in Kaulder's wife and daughter being killed. But in what we assume is her death knell, the Queen curses Kaulder with immortality, so that he'll be forced to watch anyone he loves die, while he remains, well, Vin Diesel.
Rather than skulk around for hundreds of years as the world's oldest hobo, Kaulder seems to have carved out a rather cushy life for himself, now living in the present day in a swanky New York apartment overlooking Central Park and hunting modern-day witches as part of the clandestine religious organization known as the Axe and Cross. Kaulder only seems to step in when a witch steps out of line and attempts to interfere in an overt way with the human world. It's also made abundantly clear that our hero is quite the ladies man, and of course he is—he looks exactly like Vin Diesel in a beautifully tailored suit and driving an Aston Martin.
One of the more unexpectedly touching parts of the THE LAST WITCH HUNTER is the relationship Kaulder has with as series of assistants known simply as Dolans, priests designated to supply him with research, intelligence and perhaps a bit of a conscience. In this film, the outgoing Dolan 36th is played by Michael Caine, and he has clearly made an impact on Kaulder's life beyond their working relationship. As he prepares to step down, 36 introduces the witch hunter to Dolan 37th (Elijah Wood), a bright, eager and slightly green sidekick, as they begin to investigate some strange witchy goings on that could spell trouble for the world at large.
Not surprisingly, a big bad is on the horizon, in the form of Belial (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), a Nordic warlock who intends to bring the Witch Queen back to life. (Surprise! Surprise!) Kaulder enlists the assistance of a harmless but still powerful white witch named Chloe (Rose Leslie, formerly of "Game of Thrones"), whose ability to invade people's dreams comes in handy. All of this leads to a fairly epic battle that involves all manner of enhanced Medieval weaponry and a whole lot of bicep action.
The Last Witch Hunter is certainly competently made by director Breck Eisner (Sahara, The Crazies remake), who finds one or two places to actually inject some personality into the proceedings. If memory serves, the original director on this film was meant to be Timur Bekmambetov, and it's not hard to imagine him pushing things a bit more in terms of the visuals and performances. Whether or not that would have been a good thing is unclear.
Diesel seems right at home in this new environment, and while he certainly doesn't stray too far from the personality traits we've grown to appreciate about him over the years, there's something refreshing about this character living in the real(ish) world, away from muscle cars and space aliens. The film is clearly setting things up for a possible franchise, and if that does happen, I hope the filmmakers take the time to explore the Middle Ages version of Kaulder, since there are far more interesting visual opportunities in that era than in the present day (at least that's the case in this film).
I also loved the strength and smarts that Leslie brought to Chloe, whose only true ambition when we meet her is to run her bar well, having no aspirations to use her witch gifts to save the human race. While the idea of a reluctant hero is fairly played out in action movies, Leslie finds a way to make it interesting and authentic. Caine's reliable take on 36 still relies heavily on the wise elder statesman persona that he created in the Christopher Nolan DARK KNIGHT films as Alfred, but it works for him, and it gives us a great deal of necessary information in a type of shorthand. I felt a bit bad for Wood's 37, who is introduced strong but spends far too much time off screen.
The effects in THE LAST WITCH HUNTER are one of the film's highlights. They alternate between darkly moody and atmospheric to splashy, fiery and mildly terrifying. There's a giant creature called the Sentinal that is especially impressive, with his body made of stone and wood and other earthy materials. I wish as much time had been taken to craft more interesting characters. Any amount of warmth and personality shown here is the product of the actor, not the screenplay (courtesy of Cory Goodman, Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless). Maybe now that we've got the getting-to-know-you origin story out of the way, if THE LAST WITCH HUNTER becomes a franchise, it can open itself up to something a little less stiff and a little more fun and embracive of its witchy roots. Still, it's not a terrible first chapter, if that's what it turns out to be.