Some vampire movies are classics ('Nosferatu.') Some are scary ('Martin.') Some are class ('Let the Right One In.') Some are camp ('Bram Stoker's Dracula.') Some are cool ('Near Dark.') Some are epic ('Interview with the Vampire.') Some are badass ('Blade.') Some are fun ('The Lost Boys.') Some are hip ('From Dusk Till Dawn.') Some are glittery-sh*t-on-a-stick ('Twish*te.') And this? This is just trying to be everything. But, in Abraham Lincoln's famous rephrasing of poet John Lydgate's words: "You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can't please all of the people all of the time."
Director Timur Bekmambetov ('Night Watch,' 'Day Watch,' and 'Wanted') throws everything at the screen - and I mean everything. At one point a vampire lobs a horse at our lanky pre-Presidential hero (Benjamin Walker - looking like a young Liam Neeson.) He chucks a horse at him! Seriously. Remember the train action set-piece in 'Wanted'? Well, it's here again, only this time it's a steam-train plummeting from a wooden bridge. Only the bridge is collapsing. And it's on fire. And it's teeming with vampires. Like 'Snakes on a Plane' before it (remember how much we B-movie fans looked forward to 'SoaP' merely on the strength of the title?), 'Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter' fails to deliver largely because Bekmambetov, producer Tim Burton, and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith (here adapting his own novel), forgot to develop a decent script. It's a hodgepodge, leaping from Abe's early years to his stint as America's 16th President, the Civil War and the emancipation of the slaves - whilst leaving little to no room to pause for breath, character development or even to establish a decent villain.
If ever a movie deserved to begin "Based on a true story" - this is it. Strangely, however, it doesn't. What it does is to follow a hackneyed origin cliche of Abe's quest for revenge after his mum is bit. The tall guy meets his mentor, Henry Sturges - (Dominic Cooper - who was so good in 'The Devil's Double' but is far less convincing here.) Abe undergoes a 'Rocky'-style music training montage. Suddenly he's a whizz with an axe, flinging his silver-coated chopper about like Bruce Lee's nunchaku. Abe's just an ordinary dude on a quest for revenge -only now he can chop through trees with a single axe-swish and fight-off super-strong fanged foe as though imbued with Hulk's green rage. This is explained away by Sturges spouting Yoda-style mentor platitudes, like: "Power comes from truth not hate" or some such bull.
This then is a movie determined to have its cake, spin it around in the air 'Matrix'-style, chop it up with an axe, shoot it and eat it. Playing fast and loose with history is one thing, but the movie completely rejigs vampire lore. Thankfully they don't sparkle, but these vamps are impervious to sunlight - yet vulnerable to silver bullets (wait, um... isn't that werewolves?)
Ok, maybe I'm being too harsh. After all, the film opens with Lincoln's voiceover stating that "History prefers legends to men" - and cinema audiences prefer super-duper action heroes slaughtering train-car loads of vampires to well-wrought scripts, right? I mean, it's a comic-book style story after-all? Look at the freakin' title, dude! It's a joke! True, but this is a one-note joke and more to the point - it ain't funny. The script lacks humour, replacing it with hints at a troubling revision of US history wherein slavery was something that vampires kept alive so as to provide a ready food source... In fact the only coloured actor with anything to do is Anthony Mackie as Will, Abe's boyhood friend - and to say he's under-utilised is an insult to under-utilisation. Similarly wasted is Abe's love interest, Mary Todd - the superb Mary Elizabeth Winstead (who was so great in 'The Thing' and 'Scott Pilgrim.') Winstead, along with Erin Wasson's "Vadoma" (the obligatory sexy-femme-fatale-vampire-in-tight-leather/PVC-pants), has little to do other than pout and occasionally gaze lovingly at her lanky Lincoln lover.
So, whilst women and people with dark skin have little to do, the tall white dude is left to save the day in spectacular fashion. And it's in the spectacle that Bekmambetov and the CGI, SFX and 3D-boffins excel. Things explode, gush blood, spin in Sam Peckinpah-style slow-mo, and then speed-up in Guy Ritchie-style and it all looks like a fourteen-year-old boy's wet-dream of a vampire-vanquishing video-game. Some of the visuals are wondrous to behold - the camera zooming in on a battlemap which transforms into a bird's eye-view of the Battle of Gettysburg; motes of burning 3D ash that spin through the cinema before your very eyes... But we were already gobsmacked by dust and ash particles in 'Avatar' and blown away by grand CGI camera moves in 'The Lord of the Rings.' What remains is a patchwork of cliche, rehash and "been-there, seen-that" storytelling which, like 'Snakes on a Plane' before it is fun while it lasts, but forgettable popcorn fare.
Lincoln once famously quipped: "How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg? Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn't make it a leg." Calling 'Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter' a great idea doesn't make it anything other than mediocre boy's own fun. Roll on 'Margaret Thatcher: Zombie Dispatcher,' 'Barac Obama: Sith Harmer' and 'John Key: Werewolf Whisperer'...
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