Abraham Lincoln: husband, father and the 16th President of the United States. But what if he was also something more…Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is adapted from the 2010 book by Seth Grahame-Smith which supposed that, in addition to his many documented achievements, Lincoln was also an accomplished slayer of the undead. The book uses a framing narrative to tell a modern story of a man charged with assembling the tale of Lincoln’s alternative life through a series of journals left by the great man himself. The story unfolds as entries in the first person, taking elements of biography and weaving the fiction around them.
It’s a clever idea and Grahame-Smith should be commended for his research and attention to detail but it’s also remarkably dull – treating its fanciful subject matter in far too serious a way. I feared the big screen adaptation (penned again by Grahame-Smith) might fall into the same trap but the result is actually a very different piece of entertainment, and sometimes better for it.
Russian-Kazakh director Timur Bekmambetov is at the helm here, best known for the delightfully insane Wanted, as well as early Russian hits Night Watch and Day Watch. He’s become associated with a particularly over the top shooting style, combining vivid CG with ballistic editing and camerawork to capture some of the most frenetic set pieces in recent cinema.
Given the dull source material, Bekmambetov seems like the ideal person to add some zing to this fictional account and he certainly does liven up proceedings. The script rockets through Lincoln’s early years, intent on getting to the part that the director (and frankly, his audience) are more interested in – deading those undeads.
And the film delivers – racing through training montages, including an hysterical moment where Abe uses some kind of special move on a tree, to the numerous face offs against be-fanged nasties. Armed with his trusty axe, Honest Abe wades in against a series of enemies named by his mysterious friend Henry (Dominic Cooper), splitting heads, chopping off limbs and shooting things in the face. And the camera dutifully follows, careening through eyeballs, tracing arcs of computer generated gore and examining the passage of a dagger through the air as it neatly slices a spark in twain.
It’s jolly good stuff… kind of. Anyone who has seen Wanted or Day Watch knows that Bekmambetov can crank out a tasty action scene and theoretically he might have done so again this time but I simply couldn’t see it. Lincoln was shot in 3D but my projection was so dim the characters were impossible to discern and the blur of action made things murkier still. I believe the set design, choreography and CG were decent but I genuinely can’t say for sure.
What I could discern of the set pieces were suitably manic, including a moment amid a crowd of stampeding horses at sunset that is something of a technical marvel and a train set finale that should astound but when that axe is sheathed the film is a bloody bore. Abe’s political career is mostly excised but we’re still subjected to a romance with the incongruous Mary Elizabeth Winstead and rather more talking than is necessary in a film that’s about separating vampires from their evil heads. Grahame-Smith can’t make these interludes interesting enough to justify their inclusion, almost making the fact that our hero is also Abe Lincoln incidental.
As Lincoln, young Benjamin Walker is rather spiffy. More a stage actor to date, some effective minor prosthetics skew his features towards the man himself and he’s also a dead ringer for a young Liam Neeson, who he previously played in Kinsey. He’s got good presence, swings a damn fine axe and does what he can to capture the lighter moments the film throws at him. As confidante Henry, Dominic Cooper is also eminently watchable, just one in a well-appointed cast that includes Rufus Sewell (more roles for him!) Anthony Mackie, Marton Csokas and an underused Alan Tudyk.Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a strange film, but then it was always going to be. It diverges wildly from the book and mostly for the better, adding more humour and some sense of its own ridiculousness, while also delivering some top notch action scenes. But the story is half formed and the final battle unsatisfying, while the use of the character of Lincoln never really feels essential. And you’d be well advised to catch it in 2D, if you can.