So a witch, a priest, and an assassin walk into a bar . . . And if you want to see the punchline of that joke play out, you’re going to have to lend two hours of your time to The Last Witch Hunter. I guess the question is whether or not the movie is funny enough to be worth that effort. How do you even critique a film like this, really? Do you judge it based on its merits as a self-serious action fantasy ostensibly aiming to build a franchise that certainly isn’t coming? Or do you enjoy it for what it truly is: a trashy throwaway trifle you enjoy once & then immediately forget? I’ll admit to enjoying the film well enough as a one-time-use trifle, but your own personal mileage may vary by how much enjoyment you automatically derive from bloodthirsty witches & an immortal Vin Diesel wielding a flaming sword (an image so inherently metal I could practically hear Slayer playing in my head both times it appeared onscreen). For me, that’s a pretty easy sell.
I will say this much on The Last Witch Hunter‘s behalf: it’s cartoonish inanity is far from half-assed. The movie’s sense of self-mythology is amusingly complex, as if it were trying to squeeze in volumes of source material comic books into a single feature film. In fact, since the movie is flopping hard enough to guarantee that no sequels will follow (despite its desperate wishes), a comic book adaptation might not be the worst future for this property. The story begins in The Dark Days of the Witch where Vin Diesel’s titular witch hunter gets his start by stabbing his flame sword into the chest of The Witch Queen, an evil hag made of tree roots who plans to wipe out the human race with The Black Plague in order to make room on Earth to expand her personal garden (seriously). In her dying breaths, she curses the newly crowned witch hunter to live forever, which eventually leads to a truce between witches & witch killers and the establishment of The Axe & The Cross, a spooky UN-type organization meant to ensure that “The peace endures” (a phrase that serves as the movie’s version of “May the Force be with you.”). Of course, this all leads to Diesel’s witch hunter being Double Axed & Double Crossed in modern day NYC when a strange figure similar to WWE’s Bray Wyatt or an extra from the first season of True Detective upsets the status quo by reintroducing black magic into the world, a force explained to be “beyond evil.”
I’m getting exhausted trying to capture everything going down here & I haven’t even touched on ideas like “dreamwalkers”, “The Witch’s Council”, “The Witch Prison”, or the fact that folks like Michael Cain & Elijah Wood somehow got involved in this silliness. And I’m pretty sure I’ve mostly just included concepts introduced in the first act. As a whole, the movie has the convoluted mythology of a years-old game of D&D (something Vin Diesel is reportedly a huge fan of). The film also has a somewhat complex visual palette depicting a magical version of NYC with the general ambiance of a metropolis-sized absinthe bar. This is sharply contrasted with the old world witchcraft of insects, tree roots, fire, and endless voids. It’s all too easy to root for the witch’s side of the equation here (as if it’s ever not), since their evil queen’s dream of a worldwide garden is much more appealing than modern magic’s much more frivolous uses of selling cupcakes & promoting witchy fashion shows. Also, when The Witch Queen reminds the witch hunter that since witches pre-date humans, “You are trespassers on our world,” it’s a very convincing argument.
In a way, that’s what’s wrong with The Last Witch Hunter in a nutshell: too much witch hunting, not enough witches. Instead of constantly depicting witchcraft in action, the movie is much more interested in serving as a temple to Vin Diesel’s awesomeness as a mumbly action movie god the same way films like Commando used to do for Schwarzenegger in the past. It’s a lot of fun in this way. Diesel plays the part as a buff, action hero David Blane. He seduces witchy women, winks at curious children, rocks a Cracker Jack decoder ring, and uses MacGyver-esque tools like a glass of water & a floating staple in his leisurely witch hunts. In a lot of ways his cursed immortality undercuts a lot of the film’s potential conflict, but The Last Witch Hunter cheats enough on that detail to make it work. This is a hopelessly dumb film, to be sure, but it’s also complexly, ambitiously dumb, making for a mostly amusing trip to the theater. If you’re into Vin Diesel, wicked witches, D&D, and flaming weaponry, I’d definitely recommend giving it a shot, but I’d also recommend bringing booze.