The Last Witch Hunter (2015)

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I respect Vin Diesel’s nerd bona fides a great deal. He’s got a tattoo of the name of his Dungeons & Dragons character, having been a regular player of the game since childhood. He set up a computer game company to do a decent game based on his “Riddick” character, and made one of the best movie tie-in games ever. And even though he never needs to lift a finger for the rest of his life, now he’s got that producer credit on “The Fast And Furious” movies, he still makes odd high concept genre stuff like this as often as possible.

He’s Kaulder, one of a group of Viking-looking fellows in the early 1200s, who go after the witch who’s terrorised them. He’s smarter than his brethren so takes her down, but as he’s plunging his burning sword into her chest, she grabs him and curses him with eternal life. Boom! Fast forward 800 years, and Kaulder is the “enforcer” of some Church-based organisation, and is on his 37th Dolan, a chap trained to help him, keep him safe, tell him where to go and who to stop, that sort of thing.

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Right now, I can sense the reason why it’s currently doing so poorly at the box office. It feels at times like the sequel to something we’ve not seen, or possibly a prequel to something you have (where you’re expected to know a lot of the linking stuff). Witches still exist, some good some evil, and they’ve got a truce going with the Church. Kaulder will bring in the ones who break the truce, and they’ll all be thrown in Witch Prison (yes, that’s what it’s called).

It looks like someone has got witch power stronger than anything Kaulder’s seen since the original Witch Queen, so he’s thrown into the toughest fight of his life. Dolan 36 is Michael Caine, doing a version of Alfred from the Batman movies where he gets to have a bit of a laugh; he’s killed, and up springs earnest, nerdy Dolan 37, Tobey Maguire, who was rescued by Kaulder as a child when his parents were killed by a witch. There’s Rose Leslie off of “Game Of Thrones” as Chloe, a witch that sort of offers to help our hero, and a cavalcade of colourful magical types. Of course, Diesel gets to kick ass too, and the fight scenes are done well with a minimum of “oh my god I’m being thrown into a wall in slow motion” that seems to have dominated action cinema in recent years.

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There’s a lot of world building going on here. If this makes a dime of profit, Diesel will be pushing for this to become a franchise, so it does occasionally feel like he’s laying track for the second or third movie down the line. But the world of witches is visually interesting, with some great special effects, and fairly original, as much as any film with this sort of plot can be said to be original; and Diesel plays Kaulder as someone who’s come to terms with his life and seems pretty happy with it, unlike your average brooding dark fantasy hero. He’s long since avenged the deaths of his wife and daughter, and it’s a really interesting take on the fantasy hero, someone who enjoys their work and is good at it. At one point, someone threatens him with his worst fear, and he says honestly that he doesn’t fear anything, with being immortal and indestructible and all. It’s a fun idea.

A word about Chloe and female sidekicks in 2015. I am delighted that there was no romance subplot or even much of a hint of one, and it’s a good sign that women can have leading roles in movies where their relationships are based on respect and friendship, not just sex. While I don’t think she’s the best actress in the world, her role as someone without whom Kaulder couldn’t succeed, who helps him because she sees the rightness of what he’s trying to do, feels modern and is a trend I hope to see continue (see also the most recent “Mission Impossible” movie for another excellent example of how to do women in the movies).

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Kudos to Breck Eisner, whose last movie was the similarly decent “The Crazies” in 2010 (no idea why it took him five years to get another directing job, though). I’ve been pretty positive about this movie – Diesel obviously loves the genre and his style works great, there’s none of that shades of grey nonsense, it’s just good fun! – but the other (worse) reviewers have not been kind to it. There’s a bit too much backstory, and too little of the weird world of present day witches – in fact, it all feels a smidge overstuffed, but given most of the movies the ISCFC covers could do with 100% more incident in them, I can live with that.

Don’t expect great fiction – this is a Vin Diesel popcorn movie, after all – and go to have a good time, because you’ll definitely have that. I hope we see more of Kaulder, too.

Rating: thumbs up

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