Movies

Movie Review: The Axeman Cometh

The film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter isn’t capable of delivering the excitement of its title in a classic case of aiming too high and trying too hard, although it does deliver axe blows like a pro.

WARNING: MAY CONTAIN MILD SPOILERS AND MAJOR HEADACHES FOR HISTORY STUDENTS!

Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) was many things: a writer, a statesman, a lawyer, not to mention the 16th President of the United States. However, what the public doesn’t know is that Lincoln has spent most of his life as a vampire hunter, having witnessed the murder of his mother by vampire Jack Barts (Martin Csokas). Under the tutelage of rogue vampire Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper), Lincoln works his way through a seemingly endless supply of vampires, all of them led by 5,000-year-old Southern slave owner Adam (Rufus Sewell) and his enforcer Vadoma (Erin Wasson). With his allies Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson) and William Johnson (Anthony Mackie), Lincoln seeks to rid the country of the dual, interwoven horrors of vampires and slavery, while at the same time hiding his activities from his loyal wife Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and from the annals of history.

Seth Grahame-Smith almost single-handedly started the current vampire/zombie/historical sub-genre in 2009 with his instant blockbuster novel Pride, Prejudice & Zombies. His follow-up was Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which took his revisionist horror a step further by making the characters real historical figures. Grahame-Smith adapted his own novel for the screen, while Russia’s answer to Zack Snyder, Timur Bekmambetov, took up director duties. Combining the man responsible for some of the most lucrative fiction of recent memory with the man who directed Night Watch and Wanted seems like a winning combination on paper. Sadly, the end result is less than exciting, and much of the film fails to live up to the pulpy, campy promise of its own four-word title.

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Four score and seven beheadings ago…

Lincoln is first and foremost a casualty of wickedly high expectations. It’s not just the juicy, almost subversively humorous promise of the title. Indeed, the title alone indicates a level of absurdity in and of itself that the film often aspires to and just barely reaches. Lincoln has the misfortune of opening in late June 2012 as opposed to its original release date of October 2011. The Avengers started the summer 2012 movie season with a bang so big that few films could even come close to competing with its perfectly choreographed action sequences, depth of humanity and its strikingly balanced ratio of fisticuffs, drama and genuine emotion. That’s not Lincoln‘s fault, and while it does deserve to be judged on its own merits, having such a huge benchmark released only 6 weeks prior doesn’t do the film any favors.

Bekmambetov burst onto the scene with Night Watch, a highly singular and unique film based on a similarly intriguing mash-up property. In that film, he juggled a huge cast of diverse characters, made a plot filled with ridiculous twists and turns seem highly logical and filled the screen with brain-searing visuals and fight sequences. He did similar magic with Wanted, although it was clear that moving out of his native Russian caused some translation static in the final product. Similar static permeates most of Lincoln, and there’s no magnetically animalistic presence like Angelina Jolie to counteract it. The first half of the film has some genuinely thrilling set pieces, some of which reach a level of absurdity that has to be seen to be believed (like a chase/fist fight taking place among and on top of a herd of stampeding wild horses). However, it becomes clear that Bekmambetov only has a limited amount of things in his action movie phrasebook, and after the 100th slow-motion shot of Lincoln’s axe slicing open a vampire neck, with copious amounts of black 3D blood flying toward the screen, it’s obvious that Bekmambetov isn’t bringing his A-game.

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Lincoln, in dire need of emancipation.

Grahame-Smith’s script doesn’t help matters much. Full of banal conversations and action-film aphorisms, it’s never sure if it wants to be a deadly serious drama or a campy good time. Frankly, the film really needs to swing toward the latter to make Bekmambetov’s visuals work, but it too often takes itself far too seriously for that. In the film’s alternate history, the southern half of the Union is effectively ruled by vampire slaveholders, and vampirism and slavery are linked evils. In fact, in Grahame-Smith’s universe, the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery or states’ rights at all, but about stopping a vampire war of conquest before it could spread to the North. It’s an intriguing idea that never gets the properly ludicrous treatment it needs, so it instead comes off as an insulting trivialization of one of the bloodiest sagas in American history. It’s never clear if Lincoln is more concerned with freeing slaves because it’s the right thing to do, or because it’s the easiest way to undermine vampire sovereignty and get revenge for his mother’s death. It does a disservice to the real, historical Lincoln by making his actions feel so shallow and self-serving, even if only for a moment or two.

With the right cast, such a fever-dream version of American history could be a thrilling, amusing spectacle. In fact, Bekmambetov needs the right actors to balance out his more outrageous urges. In an early scene in Wanted, one raised eyebrow and “you’re kidding, right?” expression from Angelina Jolie keeps the entire film from completely running off the rails by effectively channeling the audience’s skepticism and disbelief. None of the actors involved in Lincoln are able to single-handedly keep the film’s focus earthbound, and few of them are even capable of trying, despite their talent or dedication. Nobody here is awful, necessarily, but few people stand out or treat the material with the winking eye it deserves.

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History fails to give Lincoln credit for popularizing floppy hair.

Benjamin Walker does the best he can with Lincoln, although such a role is probably a bit higher than his current skill set would allow. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to Eric Bana (who oddly enough was once offered the role), Walker only gives Lincoln the authority he deserves in the film’s final act, when an older Lincoln must once again take up arms against a vampire menace. It’s as if the more Walker’s face gets lost in (admittedly highly effective) old-age make-up, the more he loses himself into the role. His scenes as the younger Lincoln, though, lack any connection to the man himself. Walker can’t even manage to drum up much chemistry with Mary Elizabeth Winstead, which is something of a feat considering Winstead’s undeniable charm and natural allure. Winstead herself does better on average than Walker, making Mary Todd a more fully-realized character than Lincoln, even though she and Walker both aren’t helped by the ankle-deep script.

On the other end of the spectrum, Dominic Cooper tries way too hard to make Henry a conflicted, bitter man, and it’s extremely hard to like him even though he’s ostensibly the good guy. There’s an undercurrent that suggests Henry may be using Lincoln’s thirst for vengeance for his own ends, but that’s never fully explored, and Cooper never bothers to go explore it. Almost as a vampiric counterweight, Rufus Sewell is almost a non-presence as Adam, making a 5,000-year-old, super-powerful, blood-sucking fiend seem bizarrely nondescript. It’s as if Sewell himself is tired of the role even before it begins. Martin Csokas is somewhere in-between the two, his relentless scenery-chewing coming off as an indicator of indifference: it’s as if he couldn’t be bothered to make his character nuanced, so he just decided to make him the most unsubtle thing to come out of the bayou since Anne Rice. The Jack Palance of the 1980s would be proud.

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He’s a human president; he’s a blood-drinking avenger. Can they get along?

The most memorable performances come from the supporting cast, namely Erin Wasson’s surprisingly compelling Vadoma and Jimmi Simpson’s easy-going charm as Joshua Speed. With her dangerous cheek bones and icy stare, Wasson easily justifies the script’s whispered awe at Vadoma’s prowess, which is all the more interesting considering that Wasson is a model-by-trade, making her film debut. Simpson’s Speed is clearly the film’s comic relief, but he never treats the role as a gag or a jester. In fact, Speed is in some ways Lincoln’s rock and anchor. Rumors abound that the real-life Lincoln and Speed may have had a romantic relationship, and this subtext is obvious in Simpson and Walker’s scenes together, although Simpson seems to have a much better grasp on it.

Despite the inconsistent performances from the cast and the heavy-handed tactics that both Bekmambetov and Grahame-Smith take, there are a number of things to recommend from the film. Many of the action sequences are exciting, even though they are occasionally edited to death. Making Lincoln’s weapon of choice an axe was something like a stroke of genius, as the constant twirling of Lincoln’s axe grants the melee scenes a kind of grace and fluidity missing from the film’s relatively static war battles. Bekmambetov also makes good use of the 3D effects, using them to give the vampires’ eyes a highly disconcerting depth, like an extra layer of red cornea covering their human eyes. The film uses the classic “things comin’ at ya” aspect of 3D to punctuate fight sequences that help to put the audience immediately into the fray, as well as making a valid argument for seeing the film in the theatre (since these moments won’t be nearly as thrilling in 2D at home).  The first of these moments involves Barts getting an eyeful of lead from someone’s pistol, and it’s genuinely startling.

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3D also makes those model cheekbones really pop.

In the end, Lincoln‘s merits fail to outnumber its flaws, which besides all mentioned above, includes a criminally wasted Alan Tudyk in a “hey it’s that guy!” cameo as Stephen A. Douglas. It’s a victim of the expectations placed upon it by its title and by a genre that Grahame-Smith essentially created but here can’t seem to transcend. The film is every bit as absurd and silly as its title suggests, but nothing within the film would indicate that such a thing was made clear to anyone involved, and certainly not to the director. It’s essentially a cracked-out Wikipedia entry interrupted by bloody, slo-mo combat. That should be relatively exciting, but here it’s just kind of…there. It’s an amusing trifle that thinks it’s a serious exploration of the darkness of men’s souls, instead of an excuse to see Abraham Lincoln decapitating monsters with a silver-bladed axe. At least in that respect, it exceeds expectations. Hopefully when we get around to George Washington: Zombie Killer (and believe me, we will), the formula will be more refined.

Rating: 5 out of 10 / C

JOHNNY M is a frequent FBOTU contributor and wants to axe you a question. <a href="http://www.fanboysoftheuniverse.com/index.php/forums/member/21/" title="imageimage

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