There’s something so adorably nerdy about the fact “The Last Witch Hunter” is partly based on one of Vin Diesel’s old Dungeons & Dragons characters that it’s hard not to look kindly on this good old fashioned pulpy B-movie.
In the Middle Ages, a band of warriors enters the lair of the Witch Queen (Julie Engelbrecht), determined to put an end to her malevolent magic which is blighting the human world with a deadly plague. The attack succeeds but just as warrior Kaulder manages to kill the Queen, she curses him with eternal life as punishment. Now immortal, Kaulder spends the next 800 years hunting witches and, with the support of mentor priest known as the Dolan, policing a truce which is established to allow the magical world to live peaceably alongside the world of man. But when the truce is broken and Kaulder’s Dolan is attacked, he starts to unravel a conspiracy which seeks to resurrect the Witch Queen and lay waste to the world of man.
How much you enjoy this film will probably depend on how amenable you are to the twinkly-eyed, gravel-voiced machismo of Vin Diesel. For some, he seems to be the Adam Sandler of action movies and people queue up to deride his movies regardless of their popularity or success. Currently riding high on the back of the juggernaut “Fast & Furious” franchise, I love the fact he still seeks out opportunities to make the kind of films that he would enjoy watching.
From its heavily “Game Of Thrones” inspired opening, “The Last Witch Hunter” is packed with magical foes, fast cars and flaming swords, this is an enjoyable action romp with a surprisingly rich amount of world-building. A muscular, witch-focussed variation on “Buffy The Vampire Slayer”, there’s a lot of commonality in the way they playfully place an entire magical culture coexisting just under the radar of ordinary folk and the Council of the Axe and Cross and the position of Dolan bears a striking similarity to The Watcher’s Council of Joss Whedon’s classic 90’s TV series. These familiar elements are at least brought to the screen with a genuine enthusiasm and are used to build something interesting, adding fresh and clever elements to create a well thought out on-screen world.
Diesel is great value as the immortal hero who makes the most of compound interest and his 800-year lifespan by living in a plush apartment overlooking Central Park and tooling around New York in designer clothes (black, natch) and an Aston Martin Rapide S. He’s ably supported by “Game Of Thrones” veteran Rose Leslie as a feisty and powerful young white witch and reluctant ally. Leslie brings a lot of texture to a role which could have been merely a cypher, giving the film a needed touch of lightness and develops a sparky rapport with Diesel’s gruff hunter. Elijah Wood and movie legend Michael Caine drop in for Dolan duties but neither of them are particularly stretched by the material. As the ‘big bad’ of the piece, the Witch Queen doesn’t get a lot of screen time to really establish her menace but luckily her principle acolyte, a Nordic warlock named Belial and played with appealingly operatic hamminess by Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, gives us a hissable villain in her stead.
I went into this wanting some undemanding, FX-driven action movie hijinks and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s not revolutionary or genre-redefining by any stretch but the special effects are great, the cast is likeable and the story’s fun and kinetic. It’s miles better than similar genre mashups like “Van Helsing” and “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer” and less doom-laden than “Dracula Untold”. It’s a solid, popcorn flick and sometimes that’s exactly what you want.