So it’s come to this: I’ve sat through a film called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. By choice.
Granted, I was kind of looking forward to it because I think director Timur Bekmambetov is a Kazakh lunatic who makes really energetic movies like Night Watch and Wanted that I refuse to devote brainpower to think about. It’d be wrong to think, as Bekmambetov doesn’t make movies with his brain; he makes them with his dick and his dick wants punching and bullets going in directions that bullets don’t normally go and usually something involving trains.
Bekmambetov leaves the thinking to screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith, who adapts his own 2010 novel in which a pre-stovepipe-hat Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) seeks revenge against the strangely unaging man who killed his mother. After a botched attempt during which he finds out that his mother’s killer is a vampire, he winds up under the training of Henry Sturges, a vampire hunter who tasks the young, axe-wielding Lincoln with a list of bloodsuckers to kill in Springfield, Illinois.
Hilariously enough, if you ignore any part that even remotely involves vampires, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is actually fairly faithful to Lincoln’s own biography. Once he arrives in Springfield, the proceedings will actually be quite familiar if you’ve read The Hypo, complete with Lincoln rooming with general store owner Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson) and courting young Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).
Winstead takes her role as seriously as if she were in Spielberg’s Lincoln, which is emblematic of the overall character of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter — it’s a film that’s completely unaware that its central concept is a joke. Many have balked at the idea of making an earnest film in which the 16th President of the United States kills vampires but let me offer this to the naysayers: Snakes on a Plane decided it wanted to be in on the joke, and who has mentioned that movie since 2006, much less watched it?
Benjamin Walker as Lincoln proves the film’s biggest surprise. Obviously it’s a tough concept to take seriously, but Walker — most famous for playing Andrew Jackson on stage — gives a strong performance as Abraham Lincoln, both the President and the vengeful young man who wants to kill some bloodsuckers. It speaks to wise casting decisions, hiring principal actors that at least create the illusion of taking the role seriously. It may seem ridiculous, but if we don’t believe that’s Abraham Lincoln slaying the undead, then the film doesn’t even work on its most basic level.
Seth Grahame-Smith’s script takes the concept seriously — almost to a fault. Most of the vampire fighting involves young Lincoln, not the iconic one with the big hat and whiskers even though the title likely evokes the image of the latter. Later, Lincoln becomes President and the Civil War rages on and, while the South is bolstered by vampire forces*, Lincoln doesn’t take up his axe again in favor of war room handwringing — that is, until it’s time for a final action set piece which, you guessed it, takes place on a train.
Grahame-Smith is dead set on trying to script an honest-to-god movie about Abraham Lincoln and vampire fighting, but unfortunately, either he has no handle on cinematic drama or Bekmambetov has no interest in conveying any such drama. It’s hard to tell who to blame, but revelations like Nancy Lincoln’s death and Strurges being a vampire all along simply happen, rarely registering as a surprise. Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad become a plot point but carry as much weight as a scene of Lincoln crossing the street. It is a story in the sense that things happen in a logical, chronological order, but without all the baggage of having to react to very much of it
At least it’s clear where Bekmambetov’s interests lie — kooky action scenes — and in the process of making Abe Lincoln fight with an axe and his bare mitts film manages to attain the punch-drunk lunacy that Stephen Sommers strived for in Van Helsing. A chase scene between Lincoln and Adam (the dull main antagonist**) involves a herd of stampeding horses and climaxes with the villain throwing a goddamn horse at Abraham Lincoln.
A showdown in a New Orleans plantation involves Lincoln’s best black friend William Johnson*** (Anthony Mackie) doing a kung fu flip to get out of danger and his best white friend Speed bursting through the walls of the plantation on horse-drawn getaway carriage. These moments are the punchlines set-up by all those seemingly sincere attempted biopic sequences, and they totally pay off.
And, I gotta say, that aforementioned train set piece is actually legitimately exciting, with flames causing tracks to fall into oblivious and our heroes jumping from car to car for dear life. If there’s anybody who can get a ton of mileage out of obvious CGI trains, it’s Timur Bekmambetov. It’s almost an auteur-y preoccupation with this guy, like Wes Anderson’s dysfunctional families or Quentin Tarantino’s foot fetish.
I thought Battleship was a bit of an oddball blockbuster, but Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter has it beat for 2012’s weirdest movie that we ignored in favor of The Avengers. It’s also at least objectively better than the naval board game movie — it’s hard to be mad at a movie that at least seems to be trying and not an entirely cynical grab at licensing opportunities, but rather a movie based on somebody’s cynical grab at the literary mashup genre.
Ultimately, I don’t think it’s a particularly great movie, but I admire that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is earnestly trying to be a serious action flick — an action movie so earnest that it ends with a Linkin Park song.
**How dull? So dull he’s played by Rufus Sewell.
***Who was also a real person, Jesus Christ I can’t stop laughing.
The Blu-Ray + DVD + Digital Copy combo pack has an original graphic novel, “making of” featurettes about production, fight choreography and makeup, audio commentary by Seth Grahame-Smith, and a Linkin Park music video. All of this is only on the Blu-Ray edition, and I plan on thanking every god in sight that I only own a DVD player.