'The Last Witch Hunter': Film Review

Big on spectacle but low on magic.

Vin Diesel stars in this fantasy-action extravaganza as an immortal warrior battling witches and warlocks in contemporary New York.

Clearly aiming to be the first chapter in a big-budget action franchise, Vin Diesel's latest star vehicle is a $90 million supernatural thriller which proves to be as good as it needs to be, but no more. The Last Witch Hunter methodically ticks a checklist of fan-friendly boxes, from its heavy dependence on visual effects to its international cast of fantasy genre veterans including Michael Caine, Elijah Wood and Game of Thrones alumni Rose Leslie. Producing as well as starring, the 47-year-old Diesel casts himself in an indestructible hero whose immortal bad-ass status recalls previous blockbuster folklore reboots like Highlander, Blade and Underworld. If there's something evil in your neighborhood, who you gonna call? Witch Hunter!

The director is Breck Eisner, son of former Disney CEO Michael, who struggles to wring much sense or wit from an overcooked script which is more mythological than logical. Having replaced Timur Bekmambetov (Night Watch, Wanted) on the project, Breck does a solid journeyman job, but a nagging suspicion lingers that the Russian action auteur might have goosed up this formulaic material with more of his signature visual flair and gonzo energy. That said, The Last Witch Hunter tickles enough fanboy pleasure zones to lure the vast global army who made Diesel's Riddick and Fast and Furious franchises into a multi-billion-dollar business.

Diesel stars as Kaulder, a grieving father cursed with immortality by the Witch Queen (Julie Engelbrecht) who unleashed the Black Death on mankind way back in the Middle Ages, killing his wife and daughter. Strikingly shot in a vast snowy wilderness, this origin story opens the movie and later becomes a recurring motif in flashback. Diesel's wild hair-and-beard combo in these scenes, falling somewhere between Brooklyn hipster and Norwegian death metal guitarist, brings a welcome note of accidental camp comedy to an otherwise largely mirth-free movie.

Fast forward 800 years to present-day New York (mostly Pittsburgh standing in) and Kaulder is now a clean-shaven, bullet-headed, sharp-dressed witch hunter working for a shadowy organization called the Axe and Cross, which appears to be a secret paramilitary wing of the Catholic church. Think Men In Black, but scripted by Dan Brown. Though a fragile centuries-old truce keeps most witches from meddling in human affairs, some nefarious necromantics still break the rules. Naturally, between missions, Kaulder is also something of an irresistible playboy womanizer with a palatial apartment overlooking Central Park, a personal armory of kick-ass weapons including a flaming sword, and a flashy new Aston Martin. Diesel's pitch to become the next James Bond starts here.

The contemporary storyline begins with the sudden death of Kaulder's longtime friend and mentor Dolan the 36th, reliably played by Caine in grandfatherly post-Batman mode. After sniffing out evidence of black magic, the witch hunter teams up with Dolan's young successor Dolan the 37th (Wood) and benign white witch Chloe (Leslie) in a race against time to track down a powerful Nordic warlock called Belial (Olafur Darri Olafsson) who plans to resurrect the Witch Queen and unleash a fresh global plague. Ding, dong! The witch is not dead. Thus the stage is set for an apocalyptic second showdown between Kaulder and his evil nemesis. And this time it's personal.

The one truly impressive thing about Diesel's acting skills is how he has achieved so much with so little. All smirk and bicep, he was once earmarked as the natural successor to Bruce Willis. But more recently he seems to have settled comfortably into Steven Segal mode, a walking bag of boiled ham whose expressive range barely extends beyond sleepy-eyed, guttural grunts. In The Last Witch Hunter, he acts opposite an immobile corpse and a wooden tree monster, yet still somehow manages to be stiffer than both. In fairness, these limitations are unlikely to deter the movie's action-fan target demographic. Still, having such a wooden lead playing such a one-dimensional hero definitely makes it less appealing for casual movie goers.

In its favor, The Last Witch Hunter boasts some terrific production design and digital effects, notably the Witch Queen's lair and a creature called the Sentinel, both nightmarish pagan constructions of shape-shifting wood and bone. A couple of late plot twists also feel refreshingly left-field, even if they are shameless signposts for future sequels. Less impressively, Eisner’s movie is clogged with cardboard characters, flat dialogue and a sluggish middle act that gets lost in too much fabricated witchy folklore. Steve Jablonsky's ever-present, over-insistent orchestral score also grates on the nerves before long. Fast and furious on the surface, shallow and conventional beneath, Diesel's bid to carve himself another billion-dollar franchise is off to a good start with this mainstream crowd-pleaser.

Production companies: Atmosphere Productions, One Race Films, Goldmann Pictures, Neoreel, Summit Entertainment, Aperture Entertainment

Cast: Vin Diesel, Michael Caine, Elijah Wood, Rose Leslie, Julie Engelbrecht, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson

Director: Breck Eisner

Screenwriters: Cory Goodman, Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless

Producers: Mark Canton, Vin Diesel, Bernie Goldmann

Cinematographer: Dean Semler

Editors: Chris Lebenzon, Dean Zimmerman

Visual effects supervisor: Nicholas Brooks

Music: Steve Jablonsky

Rated PG13, 99 minutes