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Starting from a premise — succinctly stated by the movie’s title — that suggests a hybrid of history lesson and horror show, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a mishmash of styles that might leave viewers’ heads spinning. Genre enthusiasts will lap up the mixture of action and fantasy, while history buffs who don’t mind a bit of rewriting will dig into an alternative spin on the Civil War period. Audience response initially should be robust, even if closer consideration might sap some later momentum.
Beginning with Lincoln’s Indiana childhood in the early 1800s, screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith (adapting his novel, which supposedly originates with Lincoln’s secret journal) speculates that after young Lincoln and his father dare to interfere with the slave trader Barts (Marton Csokas), who also happens to be the nexus in a large network of the undead that has infiltrated the South, the vampire exacts revenge by attacking and killing the 16th president’s mother.
Lincoln seeks revenge on Barts years later as a young man (Benjamin Walker), narrowly escaping getting killed himself following the intervention of Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper), a dedicated vampire assassin. Sturges recruits Lincoln as a hunter as well, training him in the arts of vampire elimination.
After moving to Springfield, Ill., Lincoln begins dispatching ghouls as directed by Sturges, using an ax with a silver-plated blade, while combining vampire hunting with his study of law. He also meets the young Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and begins courting her, despite Sturges’ warning not to become too attached to other people, and is reunited with his childhood friend William Johnson (Anthony Mackie), a former slave.
After he finally gets his revenge by killing Barts, he’s marked for elimination by Adam (Rufus Sewell), who controls the Southern vampire horde. Lincoln temporarily sets aside his ax to marry Mary and switch his allegiance to politics, as debate intensifies over the abolition of slavery. Following his election, President Lincoln is brought back into direct conflict with the vampires with the onset of the Civil War, when Adam and his minions side with the Confederacy in an attempt to finally take control of the country.
The movie’s virtues and some of its miscues essentially originate with Grahame-Smith’s script. Taking the conceit that the institution of slavery was a vampire-motivated plot to provide the undead with fresh blood, Grahame-Smith adeptly connects Lincoln’s vampire vendetta with his anti-slavery crusade. Marrying this high-concept premise to a coherent narrative proves more challenging, however, as the tales of Lincoln’s vampire-slaying exploits make an awkward fit with the historical facts of his life.
Following up 2008’s Wanted, director Timur Bekmambetov showcases Lincoln as America’s “first superhero” (despite his lack of any supernatural abilities), shaping the first act around the future president’s desire for retribution. The initial scenes of the young lawyer dispatching the wide variety of ghouls that seem to favor Springfield in hand-to-hand combat delivers some initial thrills that more turgid set pieces later in the film seem to lack.
Bekmambetov, no stranger to vampire lore after launching his own Russian franchise with Night Watch and Day Watch, effectively deploys the appropriate camera moves, pacing and special effects to craft an awesome action figure determined to rescue the country from a bloodsucker takeover. Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography profitably welds horror tropes to special effects, but there are no real surprises in terms of either concept or execution, and the 3D conversion seems to obscure images more than enhance them.
Tall and lanky, Walker seems like he was cast more for his potential resemblance to Lincoln than for his acting or action abilities. While he appears fairly capable — if not especially accomplished — handling Lincoln’s legendary ax, slower scenes opposite Winstead and other actors tend to drag with Walker’s restrained delivery and stiff demeanor. Winstead’s performance as Mary is far more spirited as she flirts with Lincoln in earlier scenes and later argues with him over the fate of their family and country. The supporting cast is efficiently tasked with supporting Lincoln’s twin goals of destroying vampires and winning the war.
At a taut 105 minutes, Abraham Lincoln credibly delivers the thrills and gore it promises, though it’s ultimately too lightweight and conventional to merit either cult or classic status.
Opens: Friday, June 22 (20th Century Fox)
Production company: A Burton/Bekmambetov/Lemley production
Cast: Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rufus Sewell, Marton Csokas
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Screenwriter: Seth Grahame-Smith
Producers: Tim Burton, Timur Bekmambetov, Jim Lemley
Executive producers: Michele Wolkoff, Simon Kinberg, John J. Kelly, Seth Grahame-Smith
Director of photography: Caleb Deschanel
Production designer: Francois Audouy
Costume designers: Carlo Poggioli, Varya Avdyushko
Editor: William Hoy
Music: Henry Jackman
Rated R, 105 minutes
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