‘The Last Witch Hunter’
Director: Breck Eisner
Stars: Vin Diesel, Rose Leslie
2 (out of 5) Globes
“The Last Witch Hunter” isn’t based on a book series. But it feels like it is. And perhaps it should be. It’s a riot of dense, impenetrable mythology that seems like the 10th episode in a series, despite opening with a prologue where Vin Diesel’s Kaulder — a medieval slayer with an Xtreme dreadlock beard — impales a Witch Queen (Julie Engelbrecht) and is cursed with immortality. Apparently her devious plan was that he could spend eternity taking out witches like her. And that he does, right up to the modern day, when he skulks about New York City (Pittsburgh, actually), now clean shaven, policing witches who have integrated themselves into the underworld of society. They mostly play nice but every now and then step out of line. If they do they’re either killed or jailed in a version of the Phantom Zone from “Superman” — one of many things lifted from other texts than jammed into this chunky gumbo of a movie.
There’s a token conspiracy involving witches who are up to…something. It’s not clear till the movie’s almost over. A bearded bear of a warlock who looks like he’s on break from a bluegrass band (played by Olafur Darri Olafsson) is up to some kind of no good. Grouchy loner Kaulder teams with Chloe (Rose Leslie, who of course is a “Game of Thrones” alum), a witch with the secret power of invading other people’s dreams but who is also a bartender. Chloe’s powers are suddenly and arbitrarily introduced, as are Kaulder’s own murkily defined gifts. Early on he flirts with a flight attendant, rattling off creepily specific details of her life. Can he also read minds? No, he’s just been around long enough to know everything. But we can’t tell if that’s a line or a non-sequitur. When a nasty storm hits the plane he simply rubs some ancient runes together and Bob’s your uncle.
That’s how “The Last Witch Hunter” rolls: It keeps piling on did-I-just-see-that? weirdness until we give up. There’s a blocky monster who works for a witch council. There’s Isaach de Bankole, as a blind dude peddling magic roots and herbs, getting consumed by a tree. There’s a witch with a Gigerian ponytail. There’s metallic spider thingies, which aren’t quite the things from “Minority Report.” My notes have the words “stick dinosaur,” whatever that means. There’s a tree made of gummi bears, which prompts Kaulder to tell a kid, “Didn’t you mother ever teach you not to eat candy from trees?” Probably not? It keeps coming, and the world keeps growing, expanding ever outward, like the tendrils that spring from the film’s many, many trees and wood imagery. We can even see that today’s modern witches are on social media.
Maybe we even succumb to the insanity. It’s the only sane response. It can be freeing, even fun, to give yourself over to a film like “The Last Witch Hunter,” especially given how lovingly it’s made. Director Breck Eisner, son of Michael, made the over-produced “Sahara” but also the lean and brutal remake of George A. Romero’s great “The Crazies.” This is somewhere in between. He directs it cleanly, poring over every detail, occasionally pausing for an arresting image: knotty branches of wood, dark spaces illuminated by swords on fire, a swarm of evil gnats (or whatever) soaring over Central Park. It’s good at moments but terrible at storytelling and character. We can barely get a read on Kaulder as anyone but a smirking badass. “It’s all I know,” he broods about a life spent as a careerist. We’re told he has a friend in Michael Caine, ordered to supply gravitas as his longtime priest assistant. “We’ve took out some nasty covens,” Kaulder says in a fit of the film’s typically clunky dialogue. But Caine is ushered out of the movie too quickly, and in fact spends most of the movie as a corpse. (He’s replaced by Elijah Wood, who also vanishes soon after being introduced.)
Still, Diesel at least looks like he’s having fun. In the last few “Fast and/or Furious” outings he’s seemed sleepy, maybe full-on narcoleptic, rarely even motivated to bust out his signature gruff howls. But in “The Last Witch Hunter,” he cracks jokes, even flirts with Chloe, though she is, as always with the mostly sexless he-man, more a companion than a future ladyfriend. Diesel helped shepherd the film into existence, being a not-so-secret massive D&D and Tolkien nerd, and you can sense in him unusual commitment — if not commitment enough to ensure everyone’s working to give it a shape. It’s consistently diverting, but even nonstop nuttiness proves tiresome if the foundation is this rickety.