By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — And you thought you were paying attention in history class?
Not by a long shot.
Abraham Lincoln, it turns out, whose mother was apparently killed by immortal bloodsucking demons, had a secret identity as a vengeance-seeking hunter of vampires and their slave-owning helpers. This according to the central conceit of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, a big-screen adaptation by the author of the best-selling mashup novel.
When I first heard about the premise, I unfairly pre-judged it, deciding that it was historical revisionism on steroids. It sounded not only outlandish but ridiculous and pointless.
Then I saw the movie.
It’s not only outlandish but ridiculous and pointless.
With a Lincolnian running time of five score and five minutes, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a bizarrely self-serious, supernatural action thriller about the axe-wielding proclivities of that tall drink of water from Illinois who took it upon himself to make sure that our nation continued to belong to the living rather than the undead.
When the lawyer and politician who would someday become the nation’s 16th president until he was assassinated, this fella by the nicknames of Honest Abe and The Rail Splitter (played by Benjamin Walker) also discovers that vampires are plotting to take over the United States -– they back the Confederacy in the Civil War! — he embellishes his own personal mission and wages a secret war against the fanged bloodsuckers.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Mary Todd Lincoln, his wife; Dominic Cooper is Henry Sturges, Lincoln’s vampire-hunting mentor; Anthony Mackie plays William Johnson, his valet and friend; Alan Tudyk is his political rival, Stephen Douglas; and Rufus Sewell portrays the vampire antagonist.
With Tim Burton as one of his co-producers, Russian director Timur Bekmambetov (who made the preposterous but exhilarating 2008 Angelina Jolie action thriller Wanted, as well as the vampire thrillers Night Watch and Day Watch) takes his material far too seriously. The historical-accuracy-shunning screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith (who wrote the best-selling and groundbreaking spoof Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), adapted from his own fanciful novel of the same name, mixes fact-based elements of the American Civil War with fantastical occurrences and imagery.
But all attempts to incorporate the broad strokes of Lincoln’s actual life and career into this video-game-like enterprise come off as pretentious at best, insulting at worst.
Only the tongue-in-cheek approach would have worked with this subject matter, but Bekmambetov’s straight-faced directing style will have none of it.
The action set pieces, designed to show off the frenetic and overblown CGI special effects that the director is so enamored of, seem disconnected from the narrative and stand out at regular intervals like so many sore thumbs.
Sensation may be what they are all about, but they and the film they punctuate are anything but sensational.
Abraham Lincoln as an action hero may work on a metaphorical level. But as soon as he starts twirling his trademark axe and actually slaying these thirsty, marauding creatures of the night, the movie goes right off the rails.
We’ll get a more realistic look at Lincoln when Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, with Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role, comes our way at the end of the year.
Meanwhile, for now, we’re left with this humorless hybrid horror flick, which manages to trivialize slavery, the Civil War, the presidency, and the title character.
If you do not find the overall concept idiotic, then you might find the film engaging. For those of us who do, however, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter has very little bite and is about as dramatically satisfying as a Civil War reenactment at your local middle school.
So we’ll suck the blood out of 1½ stars out of 4 for the truthless and toothless Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. As Lincoln memorials go, fangs but no fangs.