ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER is a tricky movie to review. It’s almost immune to nitpicks because of the general conceit of the movie. “Hey, wait, Stephen Douglas was never engaged to marry Mary Todd!” “Dude, it’s a movie about Abraham Lincoln hunting vampires.” “Um, Abraham Lincoln’s best friend wasn’t a freed slave.” “Lincoln just axed a vampire that shouldn’t exist.” Sneaky work there, Seth Grahame-Smith.
Unless you live under a rock you likely know the plot by now – Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker), when not studying law, running for President, or fighting the Civil War from the Oval Office, was busy hunting down and killing vampires. Ever since his mother was murdered by one (according to historians she took ill and died, but what do they know), Lincoln’s search for vengeance turned into a noble pursuit to save all living men from the tyranny of the undead. From his early days as a shopkeeper’s assistant and budding law student, to his debates with Stephen Douglas (Alan Tudyk), to his wooing of Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), to the Presidency, Lincoln fights the unholy minions of Adam (Rufus Sewell), with the help of mysterious Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), his shopkeeper partner Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson) and freed slave and best friend Will Johnson (Anthony Mackie).
Is the concept inherently silly? Of course it is. It’s also pretty damn fun. I’ve read critics baring their claws for this one, even before its release, and the movie doesn’t deserve that kind of prejudging. ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER is light and frothy, and while it’s not weighty that’s not to say it’s not entertaining. Timur Bekmambetov never met a slo-mo shot that he didn’t adore, and some of the action scenes, for me, almost approach incoherency, but there’s an undeniable charm to the movie that overcomes that. It’s fun to piece together this alternate history, even knowing how incredibly wrong it is, and Simon Kinberg and Seth Grahame-Smith’s screenplay (based on his book) deviates enough from the source material so that readers will still be surprised. There’s a fantastic set piece, involving a train, some silver, President Lincoln and a bunch of vampires that should have been in the book, in my opinion. People expecting the serious nature of the book (for its inherent retconning of history) will probably be disappointed.
There’s also the matter of Will Johnson, played by Anthony Mackie, a character also not in the original book. In the movie he and Lincoln are old friends; Will was a young slave as a boy and Abraham’s father interceded in his whipping (at one point, the 3D kicks in to what has to be the strangest use for it so far, as the slaver’s whip comes flying at the screen. If only the makers of FAREWELL UNCLE TOM had use of this technology, imagine the horrific results). Once he is freed later in life, Will and Abe become close friends, and though it may be difficult to accept this plot point considering the times, again, it’s about Abraham Lincoln fighting vampires, so minor plot contrivances like that go straight out the window.
It also helps that the movie is well acted for it being what it is. Benjamin Walker has a definite screen presence and comparisons to Liam Neeson aren’t far off the mark (in point of fact, Walker played young Liam Neeson in one of my favorite films of his, KINSEY). But he takes the movie seriously and never lets the audience know that he’s in on the joke. Same goes for Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Anthony Mackie, who make their performances work through sheer charm and force of will. Dominic Cooper as Henry also brings his own charisma to the movie, and Rufus Sewell hams it up the best way he can as Adam, the head vampire pulling the strings to insure that the undead will have a nation of their own.
However, Timur Bekmambetov constantly undercuts the movie, with so much speed ramping I think the movie would run half the time at regular speed. Aside from the aforementioned 3D whip, he shoots like the mad Russian he is, testing the limits of trigonometry and good taste. There’s an awful lot of jumping, kicking, axing, shooting, and general chaos in the movie, more so than ever was in the book, which does read like an alternative history. I’m curious what this movie would have been like under a more sedate director, but Bekmambetov shoots the hell out of this thing regardless, even when the action is so cartoony as to mock all laws of physics and geography.
It must also be said, sadly, that due to the prevalence of night scenes, the 3D, at least for me, was ineffective; at times the dimming of the screen made it difficult to determine what was going on and Caleb Deschanel tries hard but the frenetic editing and the speed ramping make many of the action scenes too disjointed. It’s a shame because the action choreography is quite good – one sequence in a plantation where Lincoln takes on a cadre of vamps is well staged but really difficult to keep up with.
I guarantee that reviewers are sharpening their knives for this one, and that’s too bad – I hate to use the phrase “Lighten up, it’s a movie” because it sounds reductive, but I think it’s appropriate in this case. Bekmambetov throws everything he can at the material, and the result is at times frustrating, but it’s never dull. There will be a few giggles at some of the clunky dialogue and set pieces but it’s still enjoyable for all that. It’s not a turn-your-brain-off kind of movie – much of the humor is predicated on knowing something of Abraham Lincoln’s life – but it’s entertaining enough and the actors, especially the terrific Benjamin Walker, are having a good time without overplaying their hand. The final shot alone, for me, makes ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER worth the price of admission; it may irritate some people on the right side of the political spectrum, but it’s all in good fun, if you don’t take it (or the movie) too seriously.