20th Century Fox
105 min., dir. by Timur Bekmambetov, with Benjamin Walker, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Rufus Sewell
Though Bubba Ho-tep will never get enough credit, it was the first movie that caught my attention as an outlandish story featuring historical figures as protagonists. Now, with the likes of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and the forthcoming FDR: American Bad-Ass, it’s the hot new fad in the entertainment world. It’s hard to imagine anyone sitting down to watch Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter expecting a masterpiece of taught acting and tear-jerking drama, but it’s the film’s attempt to take itself seriously at times that makes the formula fall apart.
Helping his father build a dock house for the cruel slave trader Jack Barts, young Abraham Lincoln (played as an adult by Benjamin Walker) sets forth a series of unfortunate events when he tries to save his one friend, Will Johnson (the adult version played by Anthony Mackie) from the hands of Mr. Barts. Unbeknownst to everyone, Barts is a vampire. Firing the Lincolns wasn’t good enough to appease his anger, so Barts takes it out on Lincoln’s mother by poisoning her with his bite (this seems to kill her, not turn her).
When he is old enough, Lincoln sets out to take revenge on the man he saw enter his cabin on the night his mother fell ill. On his way to kill Barts, Lincoln meets a man named Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper) who comes to the rescue when Abe finally learns the man he is about to kill is no normal man. Seeing the opportunity to train Lincoln to be a skilled vampire hunter, Sturges takes the young man under his wing. Lincoln is set out on his own to protect the area of Springfield, Illinois from the vampire outbreak, but he finds himself getting involved in more than just protecting one town, and attempts to heal a nation.
The opening 20 minutes of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, are fairly serious in tone. Lincoln’s attempt to kill Barts is played like a genuine seat-jumper and is actually effective. I began to wonder if they were going to play the serious card all the way through. Unfortunately, the film does try to hold onto some of that feeling, while continuing with a game of laughable silliness. Being wacky and ridiculous is fine, but you have to fully commit to it. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter buys too much stock in its own ability to be something more than a goofy gimmick, rendering the entire experience limp and pathetic.
Whether it was the headache-inducing bewilderment of the big chase scene through a stampede of what seems like 20 horses turning into 5,000, or the hammy dialogue attempting to be delivered with a straight tone, nothing works. Characters with no formal training or signs of fighting knowledge breakout as experts, completing gravity defying actions for 30 seconds, then turning back into bumbling fools at the drop of hat. It might have been the choice to present this as more of an action movie that started to blur the lines. For most of the film I was thinking more about how Benjamin Walker could easily be Liam Neeson’s son, as that was more interesting than the movie itself.
You have to know where to draw the line when filming a story like this. If you want to play the silly factor properly, you have to set the tone from the beginning. Instead, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter starts off as un-silly as can be, and then just decides to play it stupid as the whole thing crashes in ball of sub-moronic ridiculousness.