A man can never have too may franchises under his belt (or on his bottom line) so you can’t blame Vin Diesel (The Fast and the Furious, Pitch Black, XXX, Guardians of the Galaxy) for wanting to start a new one with The Last Witch Hunter. Like most of those others, his latest sees him take center stage in an action-filled romp against CG enemies and obstacles, but unlike those others there’s little chance of a sequel on the horizon.
Kaulder (Diesel) is a warrior trying to rid his 14th century world of witches, but when he and his men corner the Witch Queen (Julie Engelbrecht) in her tree fort her defeat leaves him cursed to walk the Earth as an immortal. Centuries later he’s still fighting the good fight, but now he’s based in New York City and aided by a faction of the Catholic Church called the Axe and Cross. In addition to keeping him in luxury and hidden from more traditional authorities, they also provide him with a handler. The 36th Dolan (Michael Caine) passes the torch to the 37th (Elijah Wood) and dies that night from foul play, and soon Kaulder discovers the powers working against him are also working to resurrect his greatest foe, the Witch Queen.
The Last Witch Hunter – a moniker that isn’t entirely made clear as Kaulder is the last by neither necessity nor practice – is a time-hopping, Manhattan-set, CG-happy adventure reminiscent of 2010’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice but with slightly fewer jokes and no actual scenes filmed in NYC.
Diesel has a certain, starchy charisma throughout the film, but his strongest work here is in the Middle Ages sequences as he wears the beard, furs, and active aggression of the time period well. Modern times see him behaving a bit less successfully as he’s tasked with displaying more expressions and emotions than he’s capable of, but thankfully director Breck Eisner (The Crazies) keeps things moving and visually interesting enough to hold our interest.
Multiple action sequences populate the film, and while most of them play out against the cover of night the effects-work is perfectly competent. Less impressive are the smaller action beats of physical combat as the fights are cut into jumbled messes lacking in clarity or thrills. Bigger sequences are a bit more fun, but most of the film’s non-visual entertainment comes from the casual tone and banter between Diesel and the supporting cast.
The always reliable Caine charms as Father Exposition – a role he’s very familiar with by now – and Wood has a playful time behind the collar. Rose Leslie portrays a good witch pulling double duty as Kaulder’s love interest who also finds laughs in the face of CG-heavy dangers. (Her selfie gag is a highlight.)
The film is arguably too light at times at least in part because it feels as if the script is so concerned with its steady stream of set pieces and banter that it neglects to give real thought to the story. The focus throughout is clearly on witches (ie females) – we’re told about humanity’s truce with the witches and about the existence of a “witch prison” – but where does that leave a particularly threatening warlock named Belial (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson)? The script’s also unsure who it wants viewers to follow – the sidekick role initiates with the 37th Dolan after Caine’s character passes but Wood disappears almost as quickly when Chloe (Leslie) appears. It also appears unlikely that any of the three screenwriters are aware that their film ends on an empty, circular note with Kaulder fighting against a specific betrayal and the reason behind it only to commit the same action for the same reason. It’s underwhelming to say the least.
The Last Witch Hunter is passable entertainment thanks to some solid effects and a handful of laughs, but while a throwaway line about the necessity of capital punishment teases interesting, unexplored subtext audiences will find the spell is broken well before the credits end.
The Upside: Strong CG work; Michael Caine, Elijah Wood
The Downside: Action is poorly edited; narrative gets lost in itself; Vin Diesel is never all that concerned; never reveals what happened to Hansel & Gretel