Having the fate of the world left for one man to save is nothing new in movies, and perhaps isn’t entirely as far-fetched or implausible as the trope indicates, but there are certainly no shortage of these films in existence, and they populate just about every genre. From Superman to Neo to John McClane, heroes are often why we go to the movies in the first place.
In The Last Witch Hunter, that man is Kaulder (Vin Diesel), who in the Middle Ages, slays a powerful witch who was planning on exterminating humankind, but not before she curses him with eternal life, a predicament that some might not see exactly as a curse but does have its detriments. Eight-hundred years later, he’s an arrogant man who has seen and done everything and is a famous witch hunter in the services of an organization called the Axe and Cross, which maintains a delicate truce between humans and witches, something accepted in modern society. They work to keep the peace and so far have kept it true, though some long for a return of the days when the witch queen was in power.
Accompanying Kaulder is a succession of priest assistants called a Dolan, who record his actions and act as a kind of book keeper for the hunter. His current one, the 36th Dolan (Michael Caine) is about to retire after many long years and has announced his replacement, the 37th Dolan (Elijah Wood), with whom Kaulder has already had a lasting impact from an incident in the young man’s childhood. Meanwhile, the 36th Dolan dies mysteriously that very same night, and an investigation by Kaulder and the 37th Dolan uncover evidence of old ways witchcraft, dating back to the time of his curse. Kaulder suspects the worst.
By now you can’t possibly be taking any of this seriously, nor should you. A film with this title is not trying to make a statement. This is just entertainment, and casting Diesel as the Hunter is most assuredly the very reason the film works as well as its silly premise does. Making a career out of that deliciously unique baritone voice and supremely confident swagger, he possesses the perfect combination of everyman plausibility and fairy tale magic that few actors could make work in a movie like this (or Pitch Black and Riddick for that matter). While sitting on a modern airplane in the middle of a storm, recognizing that a fledgling witch passenger has mishandled some runes and is the cause of the foul weather, we don’t so much as snicker at the goofy dialog and bits of stones he lays out on the seat tray, dabbling in some powders and incantations as the panicked passengers scream and howl, but instead nod our heads with a welcome acceptance that Diesel, smiling throughout, seems to know exactly what this script is about and is going to have as much fun with it as he can. It’s the right choice and while there are some questionable action moments and complicated narratives that nearly buckle under the preposterous weight of the plot, this is generally a well-made adventure that doesn’t pander to a younger audience yet still keeps it light enough to recommend.
The strength of the film itself comes from the relationships and despite how the film’s colorful characters come together, it’s how they interact that makes many of the moments memorable, even if some are dredged up conversations we’ve heard a dozen times before. Early scenes with Caine are spot on, and there’s a nice moment between them that resonates, mostly as Caine has really become the go-to guy for emotional mentorship in movies these days. There’s also Chloe (Rose Leslie), a witch on the side of good who is very effective and never relegated to the damsel in distress but is instead an active, important role, being key to a few of the film’s better set pieces, including “dream walking” moments that really builds a bond between them. I like these two together.
Directed by Breck Eisner (The Crazies, 2010), The Last Witch Hunter is an often loud and over-the-top story that finds a nice middle ground between excess and want, as it makes witches a bit more interesting than 2013’s Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, though it never goes for the same self-referential wink as that film. It doesn’t spend nearly enough time as I would have liked in the opening moments during the Middle Ages either, preferring to keep the story in the present day. Diesel is far more imposing and compelling as the warrior in the introduction, it’s disappointing he disappears so quickly. This would be where a prequel might really find some success as the gritty darkness of this beginning holds a lot of potential. Furthermore, a few turns at surprise, especially in the finale fall flat with a revelation that is telegraphed an hour ahead from the character’s first words, but Eisner embraces the lone hero tropes with such a commitment it’s hard to fault the few weak plot conventions. This is about building a franchise and on the level, it has a flare and charm that makes it fun. It says he is the Last Witch Hunter, but no doubt we’ll be seeing him again.