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Non-Review Review: Abraham Lincoln – Vampire Hunter

The biggest problem with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is that it’s so mundane. You have this concept that is so incredibly ridiculous that you can play any number of ways – wacky “history-xploitation”; Hollywood “meta”-spoof; absurd parody. And yet director Timur Bekmambetov instead produces on of the most bland action movies imaginable. Despite the “wait? did the poster really say…?” premise, this film could be any action vampire movie ever. All Bekmambetov did was to swap speeding cars for horses and carriages, and cast a slightly taller lead with a badass taste in hats and facial hair. I’d argue that the problem with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is that it takes itself too seriously, but there’d be some fun in playing something like this absurdly straight. Instead, it’s just a generic action and adventure film with a slightly quirky title.

He was just clearing through his old things and… (four)score!

I won’t lie. There is one moment of infuriating brilliance to be found early in the film, when it seems like Bekmambetov’s direction might latch on to the ridiculousness of the central premise. “Honest” Abe Lincoln is going to “generic action movie hero boot camp” where he learns all sorts of skills that he never really puts to use, but we get one shot of Lincoln chopping down a tree. However, Lincoln doesn’t chop down the tree with the axe. In slow motion, in completely gratuitous 3D, as the score swells, his axe makes contact with the tree trunk… and then it explodes.  (The tree trunk, not the axe. Though the axe is also a gun, something that never seems as much fun as it should be.) It almost seems, in that moment, that the film is in on the joke. However, the rest of the film just plays like every other movie Bekmambetov has made before.

While there’s nothing as eye-catching as the exploding tree-trunk, there are little moments that seem to come alive, but they only serve of reminders of how dull and generic the movie is around them. At one point, a vampire throws a horse at Lincoln. Not only does the soon-to-be President catch the horse, he swings it around and mounts it. The problem is that the rest of the scene is so rapidly and confusingly chopped together that it requires a great deal of concentration to figure out the logistics of the chase. Wait, where is the vampire now? Where’s he jumping from? Wasn’t Lincoln over there a minute ago? Why would he suddenly go on the offensive?

Get while the Gettysburg is good…

Another moment serves as a reminder of what the film could have been. The movie jumps between two key times in Lincoln’s life. There’s the early years where Lincoln first found his way in the world, and built a circle of friends while forming his political ideology. And then it skips almost immediately from his marriage to Mary Todd to the end of the Civil War. There’s a huge swathe of Lincoln’s life missing there. His early political career is covered fleetingly in montage, in a nice sequence… but suddenly he’s President and there’s a Civil War going on.

While we are given very shallow motivations from Lincoln to get involved in politics, we never see how this fairly generic vampire slayer winds up in the Oval Office. Conveniently enough, the vampires are the ones – it seems – running the slave plantations and it appears that the Civil War is an extension of Lincoln’s war with the undead. From what little I can gather. However, Jefferson Davis briefly appears (chummy with the vampires, you see) demonstrating that Lincoln’s adversaries were some unholy union of man and vampire.

An axe to grind…

However, the whole “brother-against-brother” aspect of the Civil War gets glossed over, as the film suggests that every Confederate Soldier at Gettysberg was a member of the legion of the undead. It’s a shame, because there’s some rich thematic veins to be tapped here. After all, the vampires could serve as a metaphor for the unholy forces stirring America towards Civil War, literally bleeding the people dry – both those fighting for the North and for the South. While the movie clumsily tries to make the connection, and suggest that the vampires aren’t the driving force behind slavery, it gets a little confusing.

It seems like, if the film was interested in the vampires-as-monsters metaphor, it would have been better served to spend a bit more time around Lincoln’s presidency than in grafting a superhero origin onto the character. As it stands, we get a reasonably epic thirty-second montage of Lincoln pontificating and a brief “suiting up” sequence where the newly-bearded Lincoln walks towards the camera in slow motion. With Lincoln’s words set against a ridiculously melodramatic score with unnecessary slow motion, it seems like the movie might be having a bit of fun with itself. The only problem is that I could have done with a lot more of that.

He’s a hard one to pin down…

As it stands, the title character never really seems like Lincoln. He’s just a generic action hero. Far from leading an entire nation, he seems to do everything with three or four of the same people. When he orates, the film tries to cleverly “seed” his dialogue from other characters. For example, it seems like the movie’s generically evil first vampire inspires Lincoln’s “none of us is free until all of us are free” line. Far from making the movie seem smarter, it makes Lincoln seem just a little bit dumber. We see a man who can wave an axe around and borrow lines from other characters, but we see little of the steel that helped his nation survive a devastating conflict.

In fact, this version of the character doesn’t seem anywhere near as badass as the real version of Lincoln. After all, this was the President who (allegedly) invented the choke-slam and arranged to fight duels with “Cavalry Broadswords of the largest size.” Teddy Roosevelt has nothing on Lincoln’s real-life bad-assery. One would imagine you could have a great deal of fun elevating Lincoln’s actions to the status of folktales. Hell, I’d even be happier if the movie embraced the cheesiness of the concept. Sadly, Lincoln never utters the line, “Emancipate this!” while subduing a vampire using his top hat. Sadly, only once does a supernatural foe address Lincoln as “Mister President!” relishing the absurdity of the concept, and the line gives way to standard action sequence nonsense.

Hat’s off to you, Mister President…

Instead we get a character who is young and reckless and full of vengeance, looking to avenge the loss of his family, serving with a master vampire hunter and then making his own way in the world. It all feels too mundane and too banal for a crazy concept like this. The closest we come to the movie embracing its cheesiness is when Lincoln practices spinning his axe between his hands, like something of of The Karate Kid. We don’t get a folk song of the time rendered as power-ballad montage music. Woodman, Spare That Tree might be appropriate.

At the very least, sequences like that acknowledge the pulpy nature of the narrative. Unfortunately, too little of the movie is so inspired. Instead, the film plays a lot of the conventions far too straight for its own good. We get a generic romantic interest and an awkward and forced courtship. We get unnecessary angst. (“They don’t know me,” Lincoln remarks of his wife and friends.) And we get lots of slow motion and quick cuts adding to confusing action sequences.

They weren’t trained for this…

It’s a shame that Seth Grahame-Smith’s screenplay is so unadventurous and Timur Bekmambetov’s direction is so generic. While Benjamin Walker can’t quite save the film, he seems to play the role in something of a Liam Neeson homage. He deadpans his lines, emotes subtly and carries a strange poise and dignity when surrounded by pulpy material. Of course, Neeson might just have been on my mind because originally planned to headline Spielberg’s likely-more-serious Lincoln, but Walker does give Lincoln a bit more depth and sophistication than the script would allow.

As an aside, the Neeson comparison might also be rooted in the film’s firm affection for Batman Begins. An early sequence involves a “vampire killer school” that takes place in a secluded location, taught by a figure shrouded in myth and involving lessons on turning invisible. The movie’s climax is a gigantic set-piece where the Neeson-esque character is desperately trying to stop an enemy from derailing a train carrying a deadly cargo. Maybe I’m stretching it a bit, but I couldn’t help but feel like Lincoln was being written (and acted) in such a way as to channel Neeson.

Honest, Abe and Willing…

Henry Jackman’s score is also quite impressive. Unlike Bekmambetov, Jackman seems to grasp the joyful absurdity of the premise, and so the score seems to overwhelm the film – almost in a parody of the conventional blockbuster approach. There are some nice touches as well,when Jackman merges the sound effects into his score, with the rhyme of the train blending effortlessly into the climactic music. I think Jackman does a great job with the material he has been given.

Sadly, the 3D is quite disappointing. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a dark film. I don’t mean thematically, I mean literally. A lot of the film takes place at night. At times, it’s difficult to see what is going on. (I had to remove my glasses to get a clearer picture at one point.) Bekmambetov’s three-second-attention-span rapid-cut approach doesn’t lend itself to the format either, as objects are constantly changing position and bouncing around. I’d definitely recommend – if you must see it – seeing it in 2D.

Swing and a miss…

It’s a shame, because I think there was a delightfully pulpy film to be made here, one that celebrated one of America’s most iconic leaders while also having a great deal of fun. Instead, the movie ends up as a cookie-cutter action movie that just happens to be set a few years earlier than others. Ah well. Maybe Teddy Roosevelt: Werewolf by Night will be better.

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