Film Review – Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
It’s absurd. Let’s just get that out of the way, first and foremost. A story presupposes that the untold part of history surrounding perhaps the greatest leader the United States has ever had is that he was the greatest vampire slayer ever. And while the film’s campaign is such that it would almost seem someone has aims of revisionist history as opposed to historical fantasy, there’s of course a level of truth that really needs no prodding for conclusive resolution. Unlike the novels of writer Tim Powers, whose stories are woven within the fabric of recorded history to imagine a possible “what if” that is all too fantastical for blind acceptance, yet eerily close to a truth that makes you at least pause at the idea, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter goes nowhere near a place of giving pause. What it does do is thrive on achieving the spectacle of entertainment that is at its core.
The movie begins with Honest Abe (Benjamin Walker) as a child who bears witness to a vampire attack on a family member. The tragedy leaves Abe scarred, and desperate for revenge, which leads him to a run-in with Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), a man who claims to hunt vampires. And it just so happens that the man Abe is after for vengeance is a vampire. Naturally it would be in both of their best interests if Henry taught Abraham to fight vampires, since he wants revenge and all. Only there’s a catch: Henry doesn’t want Abe going on a vengeance spree. Instead, he wants Abe to take out only the vampires he tells him to. Abe agrees simply so that he can learn the ways of a vampire slayer.
This Abraham Lincoln is like another fictional character, one who has a famous saying: “I’m the best there is at what I do, but what I do best isn’t very nice.” And like the famous superhero mutant Wolverine, Abe Lincoln kills with grace and precision. He does it very well. And these moments are, diabolically, where the movie is at its best. Director Timur Bekmambetov (Night Watch, Wanted) has established himself as someone with a distinct visual flair, and it feels like he’s really distilled it from the frantic, over-stimulating chaos it has been in the past to an aesthetic that works both in terms of framing and composition, as well as unbelievable acts of grandeur. That is to say, there are sequences I never imagined would be shot on film in such a way as presented here. In the past, many filmmakers have striven to achieve a cartoonish, Bugs Bunny-like effect in terms of the action they’re presenting, but until recently, due to technical advancements, that hasn’t been as much a reality as another fantasy on top of another fantasy. Now we can see a locomotive steam power its way across a crumbling train track as fire disintegrates the support structure beneath it, all the while good guys fight bad guys, and the soul of a nation lies at stake. No pun intended.
The absurdity really lies at the attempts to meld history, quite indulgently, with the fantastical aspects of vampires and slayers and the ever-living struggle between the two. Much liberty is taken when it comes to retelling one of the most crucial times in American history. People are in places where the story needs them to be, not necessarily where they really were. And to top it off, Abe has a couple of friends who he just can’t seem to shake, who follow him from his stock clerk days all the way to the White House, and battlefields beyond. When it boils down to the thick of the plot, motivations for the Civil War are taken as fodder, quite literally, for the nation of vampires waiting to spread across the globe.
Much about Abraham Lincoln himself, even aside from the aspects of slaying vampires, is taken with liberty, and he is presented as a man larger than life—the one man responsible for taking on all of slavery. As the film’s history would have it, Lincoln alone dragged us into the Civil War in order to stop the evil of the bloodsucking scourge. It’s absurd. But, it’s also a lot of fun. With regards to the latter half of the second act, which divulges into a quasi-character-study of Lincoln and his attempts to use his political powers to fight the spreading disease of vampirism, the film moves at a brisk pace, yet never too fast to be likened to the Michael Bays and Tony Scotts of the industry. Benjamin Walker does a charismatic job of portraying Lincoln, and Dominic Cooper is just enough over the top to help remind the audience that while the film seems to take itself seriously, it really is playing off a joke of an idea. It’s the joke that, taken seriously, means the film can both know it’s bad, while at the same time not care.
Final Grade: B