Other than its campy title, not much about Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is fun. The movie goes about its bloody business as solemnly as our 16th president went about his, turning historical fact into supernatural fiction that Ken Burns wouldn't dare to present, and certainly not in needless 3D.
Director Timur Bekmambetov obviously has no issues with warping history, or presenting the results in dusty, murky tones, and slow-motion stunts making it appear that more is happening than actually is. The movie is never as freakish as its title deserves, or as giddily violent as Bekmambetov's breakout hit Wanted. I'm guessing the Russian filmmaker's name roughly translates to "flash in the pan."
Lincoln is portrayed by Benjamin Walker, a Broadway refugee whose Hollywood future may depend upon how many roles are available for a younger Liam Neeson (as he previously played in Kinsey). The resemblance between the actors is startling, and possibly the only thing Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter will be remembered for.
Adapting his novel, screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith posits that Lincoln's distaste for slavery began in childhood, watching an African-American playmate being whipped by trader Jack Barts (Marton Czokas), who is secretly a vampire. Later, Lincoln witnesses Barts putting a fatal bite on his mother, and an avenger is born. Lincoln begins stalking the undead, tutored by good-guy vampire Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), using a silver-plated axe with a shotgun twist to issue evisceration proclamations.
Four score and seven axe whacks later, Lincoln's revenge tour takes a political turn. Vampires are collecting slaves as sources of blood sustenance, and plotting to secede from the Union to keep the system operating. Lincoln must preserve the nation, which means battling the vampire king Adam (Rufus Sewell), a footnote to Gettysburg that didn't make the history books.
It all sounds more grisly amusing than it plays. Grahame-Smith's drollness on the subject is suitable for literature but requires more oomph than Bekmambetov provides in literal, visual form. The action is messily edited, filmed by Caleb Deschanel in various shades of shadow, fog and sometimes brightness exposing phony sets and matte background shots. This movie treats its silly premise too seriously, with production standards the History Channel might turn down.
Walker plays Lincoln as stoic and expressionless as the monument bearing the president's name. He's well-trained in axe-swinging maneuvers and stepping out of the way for stunt doubles doing martial arts maneuvers. Those are the only times when the character displays the fortitude and fire of a nation's savior. The rest of the performance is grave compassion when it isn't weary weakness. Walker never goes over the top of Lincoln's stove pipe hat. Then again, he isn't asked to do so.
Bekmambetov should go wild with this material, with more daring music choices, performances and bending of the truth. Stephen Douglas shows up as a slavery supporter, so why not make him a vampire and liven the debate? Make Lizzie Borden his running mate. Anything besides the dull faux history lesson of this movie.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365.
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Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Cast: Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie
Screenplay: Seth Grahame-Smith, based on his novel
Rating: R; strong violence
Running time: 105 min.