It would be remiss to talk about The Last Witch Hunter without talking about the star power of its lead Vin Diesel. After breaking out in Xxx and the Riddick films he masterminded the rejuvenation of the Fast and Furious franchise – a multi-billion dollar franchise properly kickstarting with Diesel’s cameo at the end of Tokyo Drift. And he’s also the voice of universally-loved Groot, which doesn’t hurt.
His success is a major reason Lionsgate’s smaller-budget brother Summit Entertainment backed The Last Witch Hunter. Vin sells movies. But its smaller budget, minimal marketing and genre choice were strikes against and left many sceptic of the quality.
Somewhat surprisingly, it rises. It’s no tentpole franchise or critical darling but the solid casting choices and above-average script took it to the same quality as the original Underworld movie.
In the supporting roles are Elijah Wood and Michael Caine. Wood is his typical self, channelling a very Daniel Radcliffe-like performance, and is a suitably dweeby foil to Vin Diesel’s hero. Since The Lord of the Rings he’s been doing a lot of indie work so it was odd to see him back in a by-the-numbers CGI-intensive flick.
Michael Caine is Michael Caine, pardon the redundancy. His long and illustrious career is tremendous but post-The Dark Knight Rises his popularity across all demographics has skyrocketed and he can now swagger into any movie and perform a Morgan Freeman-esque narration to boost the film’s credibility and swan out with a large paycheque in hand, regardless of the actual quality of the film. It worked in Now You See Me and it works here.
The story follows Diesel’s character Kaulder, a middle ages swordsman cursed with immortality after murdering the villainous Witch Queen. The opening sequence is lengthy and relies heavily on the special effects team to bring the old fashioned exaggerated magic to life. It’s part-Deltora Quest, part-Charmed for a while and there’s a real chance of things getting stale very quickly.
Then we flash forward eight hundred years to current day New York City. What a relief! There’s a great scene on a plane with Arrow/Scream’s Bex Taylor-Klaus that shows despite his encounter Kaulder has more compassion and mercy than ninety percent of his genre colleagues. Transplanting the medieval man into a the greatest city in the world is a massive shift in dynamics and really drives home the immortal man complex that science fiction, especially Torchwood, explore endlessly for content.
There’s a few false starts after that for Vin to find a companion – first Caine, then Wood, before finally resting on newcomer Rose Lesie. She joins the myriad of Game of Thrones stars heading to the big screen and also turned her hand to half a season of Downton Abbey. Here she’s a witch Kaulder hesitantly visits to access some repressed memories, and she hesitantly agrees, and so begins their extraordinarily tense relationship.
The script is better than it needs to be and makes a big effort to make each of these characters three-dimensional. At times the dialogue can be a little hammy, especially the “big moment” with Elijah Wood at the end, but there’s no time it’s unforgivably. In fact by the third act the episode is running like a really-really-big budget episode of Supernatural.
The makeup and special effects team deserve a lot of credit. The look of the Witch Queen was above and beyond anything in the supernatural genre for a very long time. Every time the film looked like it could cut a corner or do something cheaper it went down the more difficult route and made a better film because of it.
It’s very clear this was the birth of a franchise, a side project for Vin to star and produce alongside his other enterprises. And that’s why they treated Michael Caine’s character the way they did. But credit where credit is due – they weren’t presumptuous about it. There’s no post-credits sting, overtly dangling plot thread or blatant subtitle. There’s just the option to reunite with a two/three piece Scooby gang to track down witches.
The Last Witch Hunter is a fun jaunt that finds its niche in the supernatural world by taking itself a little more seriously than others and placing it’s medieval hero in the modern world. A solid supporting cast and excellent behind the scene work elevates what could have easily been a sloppy mess into a fun night out and the probable birth of a franchise.
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