Of the two vampire films Tim Burton is associated with this summer, I didn’t expect this to be the better one.
But while Burton’s “Dark Shadows” was a tired, dull mess that never embraced its absurd soap opera roots, “Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter” (which Burton produced) is well aware of its inherent lunacy, and delivers exactly what it promises. If the title piques your interest, you’ll get what you pay for; if the concept of Abraham Lincoln slaughtering the undead with a silver axe makes you roll your eyes, you probably passed this review up and are reading about “Brave.”
Based on Seth Grahame-Smith’s bestselling novel, the film tweaks our 16th President’s history. As a child, Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) watched his mother die by a vampire’s bite and vowed revenge. He’s aided by the mysterious Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), who teaches him the ropes of axe twirling and stake stabbing, and sets off to rid the world of blood-suckers. Along the way, he meets the alluring Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), discovers a plot by a vampire overlord (Rufus Sewell) to take over the nation…and also has time to become the leader of the nation and free the slaves.
I’m sure there was a temptation to take the film’s title and turn it into a sly joke, winking at the audience and playing the entire idea for laughs, ala “Snakes on a Plane.” And certainly, the concept is ridiculous–when you watch Abraham Lincoln do kung-fu aboard a burning train, you have to pinch yourself to realize this film actually exists.
But director Timur Bekmambetov largely plays straight, staging the film as a mixture of historical drama and hero’s quest. The story of a reluctant hero learning how to vanquish his enemies could be the plot of any action movie and, indeed, vaguely parallels the plot to the director’s previous film, “Wanted.” But mixing in the story of Abe and Mary Todd’s romance, the nation’s historical turmoil and a supernatural threat give the film a surreal, strange twist that ensures it’s never boring.
Not that the film is particularly good, in the traditional sense. As I said, Lincoln’s personal quest is derivative of nearly every action movie ever made, and the supernatural element makes the film so bizarre that the historical drama never has any emotional resonance. The President’s rise to power is dealt with without much fanfare, and the real-life political turmoil pales in comparison to vampires, demons and other beasties. Abraham and Mary Todd’s romance is obligatory and flat, as if Smith (who wrote the screenplay) was annoyed with having to shoehorn in a love story when he’d much rather just bring on the monsters. And while I don’t have a problem with films rewriting history (I love “Inglourious Basterds”), it does feel a bit offensive to take the topic of slavery and the battle for this nation’s soul and use it to make a bloody action movie.
There are a few ways I could see this material working better. One would involve a director who’s a stickler for historical consistency and use the supernatural elements to create a detailed alternative history, where the vampires could be symbols for some of the real-life tension. But the film’s historical elements are bland and lifeless, place-holders for Bekmambetov to get to the iconic hero shot or action beats (and you don’t have to wait long–the film has probably 10 minutes devoted just to Lincoln twirling his axe).
The other way for the movie to work would be for it to be crazy and wild, throwing accuracy to the wind and making the most insane, off-the-rails movie possible. And Bekmambetov, whose earlier films show a certain knack for the insane, has no probably going over-the-top in the film’s action sequences. In particular, there’s a chase through a stampede that is one of the most insanely compiled action sequences I’ve seen–it involves a vampire throwing a horse at Lincoln at one point–and a final extended fight aboard a burning train that is stylish and wonderfully absurd even if you don’t take into account that Abraham Lincoln–complete with beard and tuxedo–is the one doing the butt kicking. In “Wanted” and his “Daybreak” and “Nightwatch” films, the director showed a real skill for breaking the laws of physics and bringing to life scenes that were so over-the-top that you had to laugh, but so cool that you didn’t hold it against the film. In its best moments, “Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter” captures that tone perfectly.
But then the action dies down and we’re left with a rather dull story that’s played too seriously, and one almost wonders if Bekmambetov would have been better to simply toss the action scenes into a cut of Spielberg’s upcoming Lincoln picture.
The film is more technically accomplished than I would have imagined. Bekmambetov films some beautiful action sequences and has a great eye for staging his fights and using slow motion to his advantage–as I said, the climax aboard the train is great fun and the one time when the film actually makes its 3D worthwhile.
Walker is a likable Abe–he plays the role seriously enough that it never turns into a parody of Lincoln, but he’s also brings enough innocence and humor to the character to avoid making him a superhero caricature. Cooper has a ball as Sturgess, played with a wild energy and sense of glee as he helps Lincoln rise to power. The rest of the cast is fine as well, even if no one particularly sticks out.
Given its title, “Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter” was never going to be anything more than a guilty pleasure, but it surprisingly never dips below that. Even though its narrative too often drags it down, it has moments of genuine fun, excitement and originality. It may not be a good film, but it is enjoyable. In fact, of all the films that feature Abraham Lincoln killing vampires, I’m pretty sure this is the best.