June 22, 2012

FILM OF THE WEEK: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

by Vadim Rizov

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Given the bestselling success of Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice with Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, film adaptations were only a matter of time. The latter's premise is fundamentally offensive, trivializing both sides of the Mason-Dixon line: the South becomes the province of vampiric misdirection, with no messy lingering racial repercussions anywhere. Director Timur Bekmambetov's primary task is to deliver a product that's outrageous rather than merely ill-advised. Through sheer bombast and relentlessness, he succeeds.

As he demonstrated in his Russian blockbusters Night Watch/Day Watch and Hollywood debut Wanted, Bekmambetov's instincts are more American than most Americans. Scorning pro forma scenes of heroes agonizing over the right thing or any form of dramatic nuance, Bekmambetov prefers relentless speed and has notable contempt for the laws of physics. A car drove across a building's facade perpendicular to the ground in Day Watch, a plunging train provided the staging ground for a weightless fight in Wanted, and here vampires' super-strength gives Bekmambetov all the excuse he needs for more anti-gravity absurdity. This is only movie you'll see all year—possibly ever—in which a horse is thrown at someone else… in the middle of a stampede.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

The title tells the story. As a young man, Abe Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) witnesses merchant Jack Barts (Marton Csokas) cracking his whip into the face of a young slave (rendered in tasteless 3D, with the rope flying into the viewer's face). Outraged, he runs and intervenes. In return, Jack fires Abe's dad, who refuses to pay his debts. Barts comes to collect by sucking out the mother's (Robin McLeavy) blood, killing her. The desire for personal revenge is intertwined with a righteous hatred for slavery; a vampire slayer is born.

Opening aside, Abraham Lincoln largely steers clear of Mandingo-esque bad taste. Within 10 minutes, violence is endemic as Abe gets training from Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper), learning to fancily twirl his ax and suss out vampires in the dark. Shooting in 3D often poses logistical problems: the slightest speck of dust or unplanned-for visual intrusion can throw off foreground-background relationships. Bekmambetov turns the medium's fallibility to his advantage. As young Abe lies by his dying mother's side, viewers' eyes are drawn not to the rote pathos of the moment but to a single floating dust speck, presaging the copious grains Lincoln often throws to get an outline of otherwise invisible bloodsuckers.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Since sound's introduction, Hollywood's approach to period dialogue has often been a sloppy mash-up of faux-accurate-idioms and anachronistic vocabulary. Same here, as in the introduction of Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who, upon introduction to her husband, says "Wow. You needn't call me ma'am." Insofar as Mary figures in at all, it's to enact the token scenes of uncomprehending-wife-chiding-husband-for-neglect-and-secrecy, which play even more like self-parody than the rest of the material. Most dialogue being merely serviceable, the overqualified cast compensates by rushing through it as if it were a newsroom comedy (props especially to Jimmi Sampson as Lincoln's friend "Speed," introduced throwing a delinquent tenant out with the threat to turn his balls into a purse).

You don't come to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter for human drama: you come for outrageous setpiece chaos. Wanted's falling-train showstopper gets a climactic recap, and there's copious, often innovative depictions of various alternatives for vampire dismemberment. The extra-dimensionality is well-done, though Fox should've spent a few more dollars to avoid some of the sketchier CGI, which can get laughably threadbare. But Bekmambetov manages to power through 105 minutes of drama without becoming tiresome or repetitive. The climax—the "Gettysburg Address" over the battle, with snarling Confederate vampires rushing into the fray—provoked gales of disbelieving laughter at the screening. Whether or not this is intentional (I'm inclined to believe it is) is beside the point. If this movie must be made, this is the way to do it.

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Posted by ahillis at June 22, 2012 9:45 AM