Vin Diesel continues to wildly misinterpret his own skill set in 'The Last Witch Hunter'
The Last Witch Hunter Summit Entertainment
Director: Breck Eisner
Screenplay: Cory Goodman, Matt Sazama and Buck Sharpless
Starring: Vin Diesel, Rose Leslie, Elijah Wood, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Julie Engelbrecht and Michael Caine
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 46 minutes
October 23, 2015
(out of four)
Look, all Vin Diesel wants is another franchise to call his own, alright? I mean, is that too much to ask?
The story of Vin Diesel, A-Lister, pretty much begins and ends with one movie series. Whether by false start, flop, or just a questionable career decision, anything that has been neither fast nor furious has failed to take off on a mass scale. He did have one other franchise hit, 2002's xXx. But he bailed on the sequel, only to try and come back over a decade later (an effort that is still in limbo). For that matter, let's not forget that he bailed on the Fast and the Furious franchise as well, only stumbling back for 2009's fourth entry after a string of failures.
The rest has been box-office history, but at this point the Fast movies are virtually his entire brand name. His only other real property* is the Riddick series, and that's always been more of a cult thing - an underwhelming mainstream product with a small but dedicated fan base. Come to think of it, maybe that should have been Diesel's destiny all along - a unique, niche action personality and rugged supporting player. Maybe superstar status was a curse in disguise. (He long ago proved he can be more than just Monotone Tough Guy in Find Me Guilty, Boiler Room and Saving Private Ryan. His A-list persona is his most boring mode.)
* No, Guardians of the Galaxy doesn't count. For the same reasons Toy Story's success doesn't qualify Tim Allen as a movie star. Sorry, Groot.
Give the guy credit, he keeps gunning for it. But his latest attempt, The Last Witch Hunter, is no more likely to pay off in any meaningful way than Babylon A.D. or the already-forgotten Riddick. What makes this kind of a missed opportunity, beyond simply the potential star power of its leading man, is that it's actually an original property, a film that builds its own mythology and clearly hoped to expand on it, without any reliance on a comic book or a video game or a series of fantasy novels. It feels like it could be any or all of those things - there's an ongoing, centuries-old war between good and evil; fantastical beings hiding in plain sight in the modern world; curses, destiny, shaky CGI - but this is at least a new variation. And it's in the capable (if uninspired) hands of director Breck Eisner, who helmed the solid Timothy Olyphant-led The Crazies remake a few years back.
But every creative decision made here is an almost too-exact miscalculation, as if the filmmakers were going out of their way to do precisely the opposite of what the material called for. Witch Hunter seems like it's still stuck in that recent past in which Gritty Seriousness was the style du jour for big-budget action filmmaking. And so it gives us a world of witchcraft and dream-walking so oppressively dour that it suffocates, almost by design, everything that may have sparked our imagination. It is the exact wrong version of a medieval fantasy, using the exact wrong version of Vin Diesel and punctuated by the exact wrong application of special effects.
Even the conception of Diesel's character - Kaulder, an immortal who has been hunting witches for centuries in a sort of alliance with a secret branch of the Catholic Church - is an arbitrary collection of traits that fits poorly with the rest of the creative decisions. The rich, solitary, high-rise-dwelling ladies' man is a persistent cliché, and rarely is it more out of place than it is here. And the script (by Cory Goodman, Matt Sazama and Buck Sharpless) doesn't even commit to it. We see Kaulder get flirty with a flight attendant early on, and then we see her exiting his apartment later that night, with the accompanying comment from Michael Caine about what a lothario he is. A witch-hunting James Bond type, perhaps? A literal and figurative ladykiller all rolled into one? Well, the film doesn't have the patience to stick with that idea, so it's discarded once the plot starts rolling. Once he pairs up with the good witch Chloe (Rose Leslie), the movie tries to shoehorn in a romantic angle, but, like everything else, it's a bad fit.
Oh, and Michael Caine? He plays a "Dolan," or a sort of church-appointed secretary for Kaulder - confidante, record-keeper, advice-giver. Only he dies under mysterious circumstances, saddling Kaulder with a fresh-faced Dolan played by Elijah Wood.
As to why Diesel has been unable to find another franchise to carry, my only theory is that the Dominic Toretto persona that has been so successful for him isn't necessarily one that works character after character, the way a Tom Cruise or Dwayne Johnson does. Or maybe it's just that the material, if The Last Witch Hunter is any indication, hasn't been there. Whatever the case, it would be nice to see him do what he does best. Little does he know that being a leading action personality might not be it.