What do audiences truly expect from the likes of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter? The story is the definition of “gimmick” to be sure, and the actors are fairly middle-of-the-road. Yet I’m still a fan of director Timur Bekmambetov’s early film Wanted and expected a mindless, action romp through history. The mindless part certainly applies to this film with a plot that has no clue where to go, a lead actor who is giving nothing to work with, and a payoff that just feels like a wink and a nod about the character’s grim fate. I spent far too much time looking at my watch instead of focusing on this film. It’s a tall order to film but while this isn’t the worst movie of the year, it’s the worst of the summer so far.
After his mother is killed by a vampire, future President Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) makes it his mission to gain his revenge. With the help of his mentor Henry (Dominic Cooper) the two set out to stop the leader of the Southern vampires Adam (Rufus Sewell) before he brings war on the nation.
Having not read the original book by Seth Grahame-Smith, who adapted his work for the screen, I’m glad I didn’t as I’ve heard there’s very little connection between the two aside from the characters. Be that as it may, I might want to read the book now as I’ve heard there’s far more back story and development then the film gives us. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is essentially the Cliffs Notes about Lincoln, told as a revisionist horror story. We see his marriage to Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and how he came to free the slaves and work through the Civil War…all with a healthy dose of vampires. The blood and gore effects are great and there’s a fun effect of the screen changing color to a drab gray whenever a fight breaks out (I’m getting the sneaking suspicion though it was used for rating’s purposes). If you enjoyed the insane set pieces in Wanted that defy all bounds of logic, then this is right up your alley. There’s a massive train fight between Lincoln and the vampires that takes place as the tracks are on fire and the train goes off-the-rails. It’s insane and not at all physically possible but its fun.
The acting is rather unremarkable aside from movie-stealer Dominic Cooper as Henry. Honestly, there’s so much about Henry that we learn as a character that the audience is left to wonder why he doesn’t have his own film. His flashback scene is far more compelling than anything that happens to Lincoln in the entire hour and forty minute runtime! Cooper continues to shine in smaller roles as the cocky hero and he does that with aplomb as Henry. He also shows off his action and fight skills that are amazing. Sadly, he’s not the star of the film which leaves us with newcomer Benjamin Walker taking on the heavy burden of playing Abraham Freaking Lincoln (obviously I added in the middle name). It’s not that Walker is a bad actor; he just plays the Great Emancipator as the bland picture schoolchildren have grown up with. During the young scenes of Lincoln we see a bit of whimsy or a coy smile from the actor that implies he wants to let loose but once the character gets older (and Walker is slathered in old-age makeup) he just becomes a wooden board. It’s almost as if the director didn’t want people to complain about Lincoln’s mannerisms being inaccurate that he made Walker play the character like a wax figure and it makes the leader of this movie boring and stilted. Other actors like Winstead and Sewell just say their lines and have nothing to do except be the wife and the villain respectively.
This is the second time we’ve seen writer Seth Grahame-Smith’s work and it’s obvious he’s not up to the task of screenwriting yet. 90% of the book, according to the person I saw this with, is removed and with that it seems Grahame-Smith seemed to forget what his book is about. Lincoln fights vampires and nothing else. The first half of the film follows Lincoln as he seeks vengeance on his mother’s death but that’s dealt with about 40 minutes into the film. After that we get a harsh push forward to when Lincoln is 50! That’s a good chunk of time to bypass and the advent of the Civil War. The Civil War is kind of a big deal in history and yet it’s glossed over in favor of the 20 minute train sequence leaving the war to be wrapped up in 10 minutes…if only! The central villain is bland and according to Smith was only written to give a target to the vampire menace and yet the audience is aware vampires are bad, so why include a character to marginalize?
There’s far more plot issues with this film that I’ve mentioned above. Lincoln’s stubborn nature that goes on past the point of childish ignorance into flat-out stupidity, the removal of two of Lincoln’s children for reasons that are unexplained, and the ending that actually has Lincoln saying “I’m going to the theater” and walking away. Nice….we already know he dies so thanks for leaving us with a downer ending to contemplate. Especially considering up to this point the story was historically inaccurate. It just seems like these old West/war stories just don’t fare well in the summertime (need I remind you of Jonah Hex?). This is a wait for DVD.