June 21, 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

HORROR/ACTION:

United States, 2012

U.S. Release Date:

2012-06-22

Running Length:

1:45

MPAA Classification:

R (Violence, Sexual Content)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

2.35:1

Cast:

Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rufus Sewell, Marton Csokas, Jimmi Simpson

Director:

Timur Bekmambetov

Screenplay:

Seth Grahame-Smith, based on his novel

Cinematography:

Caleb Deschanel

Music:

Henry Jackman

U.S. Distributor:

20th Century Fox

Subtitles:

none


Nearly 150 years after his assassination, Abraham Lincoln is getting his due from Hollywood. 2012 sees the release of three movies featuring the 16th President front-and-center. The biggest of these is Steven Spielberg's long-awaited bio-pic, due to reach screens during Oscar season. Then there's a pair of curious, similarly-themed films, both of which feature Lincoln in the role of an undead-destroyer. The first, a low-budget exploitation flick, Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies, may have made a brief theatrical stop in a few theaters on its way to DVD. The higher-profile effort pits the bearded Chief Executive against bloodsuckers who neither sparkle in the sunlight nor look longingly at underage girls. History students, however, would be warned not to take Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter at face value.

Perhaps surprisingly, the only joke in the film is in the title. One expects a movie called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter to be rich in wit and black humor, but writer Seth Grahame-Smith (adapting from his more satirical novel) and director Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted) opt to play things reasonably straight. The result is a hybrid horror/action endeavor that offers Lincoln as a 19th century superhero. Bakmambetov's stylistic fingerprints are all over Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter; the action scenes are intense and utilize techniques made popular by The Matrix and 300. Visually, it's hard to complain about Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (with a caveat that will be discussed later). The climactic train sequence in particular is eye-popping.

Grahame-Smith burst on the literary scene with his pastiche Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which sounds more clever than it is. More an amusing and satirical exercise than a genuine novel, its success paved the way for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which can claim a semi-original story. The adaptation condenses a lot of history and fiction and, curiously, leaves out one of the strongest elements of the book: the ending. For history buffs, it's best to think of this as taking place in a parallel universe. For those who know anything about the Civil War, the existence of vampires is less likely to be a sticking point than the gross liberties taken with established historical personalities and events.

The first half of the movie, which follows Lincoln's early career as a politician and vampire hunter, is the film's strongest segment. Honest Abe is played by Benjamin Walker, a relatively unknown actor who bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Liam Neeson. (Irony alert: for many years, Neeson was attached as the lead for Spielberg's Lincoln, but he withdrew when the movie went into production, believing himself to be too old.) Lincoln has a grudge against vampires for killing his mother and his botched attempt to eliminate her murderer, Jack Barts (Marton Csokas), leads him to Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), veteran vampire hunter. Lincoln becomes his apprentice. He then moves to Springfield, where he enters politics, romances Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and kills vampires. For about 45 minutes, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter plays like a period piece superhero movie.

Things get muddled following a time-jump to the 1860s. Apparently, the Civil War in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is all about slaves being used as vampire food. The South is infested by vampires, with the undead leader, called "Adam" (Rufus Sewell), shown as being closely allied with Jefferson Davis. At Gettysburg, Lincoln figures out a way to beat back the vampires and this turns the tide of the war. Never mind that the ultimate solution is preposterous; it makes for a great action sequence.

When it comes to the acting, I have no complaints. Walker is perfectly credible as Lincoln - tall, stiff-backed, and rather dour. Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie, and Jimmi Simpson are solid as his companions. Mary Elizabeth Winstead (who I have liked since I first noticed her in Sky High) gives us the most attractive Mary Todd Lincoln ever. (Compare to a photograph.) And Rufus Sewell oozes cold, cultured, calculated evil. Too bad he's not given sufficient opportunity to really shine.

Now we get to the point of the review where I discuss the 3-D conversion. For the vast majority of 3-D endeavors, the format is just a means to tack on a surcharge and force viewers to wear sunglasses. It neither adds to nor detracts from the movie's quality. For a very small number of films, it can enhance or damage the experience. Sadly, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a member of the latter category. Both Bekmambetov's visual sense and Caleb Deschanel's cinematography are victimized by what may be the worst post-conversion abomination to-date. It's bad. Really bad. Move aside, Clash of the Titans, there's a new king in town. The 3-D doesn't even attempt to bring real depth to the field of vision. It divides everything into about five planes and forces images onto these. There are multiple occasions when foreground objects are out-of-focus and at times partially transparent. It's hard to say whether the inconsistencies in color desaturation from scene-to-scene are the result of Bekmambetov's style or the incompetent conversion. The 3-D is so awful as to be distracting. There's a sequence involving a lot of horses that is degraded into incoherence by the 3-D. I review what I'm given, but I'm convinced I would have enjoyed Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter significantly more in 2-D. If you intend to see this movie, do not support the 3-D version. Theaters should be paying viewers to see it in this format, not the other way around.

With its strong visual sense and high concentration on action and violence, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter plays like a graphic novel. It has that sensibility. It's not overly concerned with history and the filmmakers seem to actively hope no one in the audience knows a thing about Gettsyburg or what The Underground Railroad really was. (Hint: it had nothing to do with trains.) There's also an assumption that audience members are geographically challenged and that they're not concerned with things like the passage of time. On the whole, the movie relies a little too much on its unique conceit, getting a lot of mileage out of the idea that President #16 had more on his plate than what is recorded by history books. The concept of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is worthy of a good chuckle or two, but the execution proves that sometimes a clever title does not beget a production of equal value.

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