Late historians may be rolling over in their graves over the concept of this film, but only those with fangs and a lust for blood can actually rise up and witness the history-bending bravado that is ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER. Most mortals will simply buy a ticket to find out of this outrageous attempt to rewrite American society and the life of our 16th president could possibly be all that its hyperbolic trailer promised it to be. It is not, but the attempt is almost worthwhile on its own merits.
For those living under a coffin lid for the past few months, director Timur Bekmambetov‘s film of Seth Grahame-Smith‘s novel proposes to dig deeper than the legend of Abraham Lincoln to unearth his true destiny and legacy as an axe-wielding vampire hunter of the 19th century. Ironically, the story’s preposterous absurdity is its greatest strength on-screen, although there’s not nearly enough of it to lift this cumbersome concept up and over the top where it desperately wants (and deserves) to exist.
One night in the early 1800s, a very young Mister Lincoln witnesses his mother being attacked and infected by a local scourge and vampire. The lad grows up with an unquenchable appetite for justice and revenge, and from humble beginnings rises to become our nation’s leader. You may have heard of him. Benjamin Walker‘s towering frame supports the burden of playing an iconic American president and hatchet-spinning slayer of the undead. To the actor’s credit he succeeds at portraying the alt-universe Lincoln pre-politics with less makeup than he fares with the typical Honest Abe trappings of beard, haggard face and Civil War angst. Walker acts for character not caricature, at least as much as the script allows, and strikes a balanced note between the august historical figure and an audacious action hero with astonishing hang time as he beheads hordes of the undead.
Dominic Cooper assists Lincoln as Henry Sturges, a very unlikely ally in the war against vampirism, along with lifelong friend Will Johnson (Anthony Mackie) who stands at Abe’s side in the fight to preserve the Union as well. Always alluring Mary Elizabeth Winstead takes an enjoyable twist on the demure yet self-assured Mary Todd who wins Abe’s heart despite his resistance to fall for her charms. This romance comes at a price, though, as such personal connections distract Lincoln from his vow to devote his life to killing vampires. The plot surreptitiously interweaves historic benchmarks in the rising and falling fortunes of the Union with Abe’s personal growth and crises, though often with too little pomp and overdoses of circumstance.
Lincoln’s personal nemesis is embodied by Jack Barts (Marton Csokas) though he’s just a degenerate enforcer of the presumed king of vampires Adam (Rufus Sewell). Sewell portrays this time-wearied vampire veteran with chilling effect, even if Grahame-Smith’s script short changes the villain from taking a truly horrific bite out of the screen. The drama that ensues is a fairly intimate feud given the sweeping scale of Civil War-era America, thanks to Caleb Deschanel‘s eye-pleasing cinematography and Francois Auduoy‘s excellent production design. FilmEdge screened this film in 2D which we found less distracting than 3D and we didn’t miss ducking the numerous slo-mo blood splatters one bit.
Alas, screenwriter Grahame-Smith (who also wrote Tim Burton’s wildly uneven DARK SHADOWS reboot) is batting 0 for 2 in script satisfaction this year, as all too often the story pacing drags woefully between stand-out action set pieces despite efforts from the engaging cast to liven things up. When Bekmambetov, director of the hyperkinetic WANTED, is unleashed to create is his signature slo-mo, graphic action sequences, ABRAHAM LINCOLN soars to nearly reach its potential even if these flights of fancy are all too brief and rare. A logistically ridiculous chase between Abe and Barts amid a horse stampede proves visually (and viscerally) fascinating yet, best of all, proves unpredictable. Viewers may laugh at these impossible antics, but we’ll bet that laugh emerges from a smile of appreciation with a bit of awe mixed in. A climactic battle on a munitions train doesn’t live up to the originality of the horse chase, but it comes at a welcome time after the plot rides its brakes in the third act.
While avoiding the one-trick publicity pony of a high-concept flop like SNAKES ON A PLANE, if there’s one movie you see this summer based on the title alone, ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER will definitely be it — and you could do a lot worse. Saddled with a script too uneven for its own good, this silver-tipped axe blow to American history still possesses several moments of merit, with Benjamin Walker and Timur Bekmambetov earning most of that credit. Four score and seven blood-sucker slayings later, ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER ultimately cannot live up to the outrageous potential of its core concept, but at times it glimpses the moonlight just beyond its reach and the view is refreshing. FilmEdge rating: 2 1/2 stars.