Robust and ridiculous, single-minded and empty-headed, The Last Witch Hunter is about as unremarkable as it is structurally adequate. That’s not exactly praise, but this Vin Diesel-powered would-be series starter isn’t looking to win any awards – it was manufactured on some studio assembly line, designed to check just about every box it needs to pass muster with general audiences while world-building effectively enough to launch a new action franchise for the Fast & Furious star.
Diesel stars as witch hunter Kaulder, who was cursed with immortality by the evil witch queen (Julie Engelbrecht, obscured by a maggoty face mask) he almost sacrificed himself to slay back in medieval times, after she unleashed the Black Death on humankind, killing Kaulder’s wife and child in the process. (For reasons unbeknownst to all save possibly Diesel himself, the actor begins the film sporting a horrifying braided beard and hippie-commune hairstyle, which swings back and forth hypnotically as he battles the aforementioned witch inside a massive tree fortress. Just go with it.)
Centuries later, he’s carved out a nice little niche for himself as a sort-of supernatural James Bond, driving flashy cars, bedding exotic stewardesses and looking like a million bucks all the while. Kaulder’s less of a lone-wolf relic than you might think, though – he’s learned to roll with the times, joining forces with a shadowy organization called the Axe and Cross, which works to contain the worst witches in order to maintain a long-standing truce between mortal and magical beings. The Axe and Cross has a somewhat overly convoluted mythology, but it essentially functions as a Men in Black with clerical collars, with Kaulder as their number-one agent.
Meanwhile, Michael Caine, in grandfatherly Alfred-Pennyworth mode, co-stars as his loyal sidekick, Dolan, who’s on the cusp of retirement and just about ready to introduce Kaulder to his replacement (Elijah Wood). But before you can say “necromancy,” Dolan has been found dead under suspicious circumstances, leading Kaulder to dive headfirst into the most dangerous supernatural slums of modern-day New York City.
Turns out, a Nordic spellcaster named Belial (Olafur Darri Olafsson) aims to resurrect Kaulder’s oldest nemesis – and he’s dangerously close to succeeding. Determined to make sure that doesn’t happen, Kaulder teams up with a “white witch” (Rose Leslie) and gets on Belial’s trail. Cue a tiresome second act that unfolds much like an episode of an NBC police procedural.
There’s a series of further twists and turns along the way that eventually make things more complicated, some of which are painfully choreographed and others that are surprisingly well-executed, but anyone who goes into The Last Witch Hunter looking for anything more than a bare-bones plot is in the wrong theater. Above all else, The Last Witch Hunter is a star vehicle for Diesel, giving the actor ample opportunity to tower imposingly, glare at his opponents, look stoic and… Well, mainly those three things. Luckily, Kaulder’s shallow enough of a character that Diesel’s very limited range doesn’t sink him, or the movie.
What almost completely derails The Last Witch Hunter, though, is its oppressively brooding tone. No one here gets a chance to cut loose, not even director Breck Eisner, who swathes many of the action sequences in murky shadow and shoots them lifelessly. For a movie about witches and warlocks, starring the guy from the Fast & Furious franchise whose best-known catchphrase is “ride or die,” intended to launch a big-budget franchise, it takes itself almost shockingly seriously.
Even when a horrific-looking creature called the Sentinel, a misshapen juggernaut carved from wood and bone that serves as the witch super-prison’s main safeguard, arrives on the scene to do battle with Kaulder, and he picks up a flaming broadsword before racing into combat, the film doesn’t seem willing to face how absolutely nuts it really is.
And so a concept that could have been daft and delightful if only a pinch of levity had been tossed into its cauldron instead ends up lackluster and merely passable. The writers labor to flesh out a whole universe for Kaulder, the Axe and Cross and an array of other characters to explore in future entries, but they fail whole-heartedly to make it one that’s interesting enough to warrant a return trip.
Diesel glowers, the CGI just about convinces without ever wowing and the third act paves the way for a franchise that, if the lack of ingenuity on display in this first chapter is any indication, will need some serious magic tricks up its sleeve if it’s to have any hope of enticing audiences back to their seats. Otherwise, The Last Witch Hunter‘s title may well prove prophetic.
The Last Witch Hunter remains inexplicably mundane and monotonous throughout, even when Vin Diesel swings a flaming broadsword at his supernatural nemesis, which should say something about how utterly devoid of cinematic magic it really is.