It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Many films try and fail to pull off the kind of densely over-plotted action-fantasy that director Breck Eisner ("The Crazies," "Sahara") nails in "The Last Witch Hunter." The secrets to Eisner's success are confidence and patience, both of which compensate for the film's script whenever it becomes embarrassingly thin (especially during its rushed finale). Still, if nothing else, "The Last Witch Hunter" is so much more adept than other recent convoluted post-"The Matrix" adventure films about a superhuman men-of-action (Vin Diesel, in this case) who see the world for what it really is, and are humanity's last hope of maintaining a peaceful status quo. While most other films sprint through expository dialogue, and bluster their way through action scenes, "The Last Witch Hunter" is measured enough to make you want to suspend your disbelief.
An especially charming Diesel plays Kaulder, a witch-slayer who was cursed to live forever by the Witch Queen (Julie Engelbrecht) back in ye olde viking days. An integral member of the mortal-led witch-hunting organization Axe and Cross, Kaulder has grown full of himself after centuries of walking the Earth unchallenged. But when Ellic (Michael Caine), Kaulder's sidekick and the chronicler of his stories, dies on the day of his retirement, Kaulder investigates, and discovers a plot to revive the centuries-dead Witch Queen.
Here's where "The Last Witch Hunter" starts to get so dorky that you may want to give yourself a wedgie for enjoying it. In order to stop the Witch Queen, Kaulder must "remember [his] death," a clue left for him by Ellic in smudged fingerprints all over one of Ellic's most prized books. The Rolodex of enemies and fair weather contacts that Kaulder meets up with on his rocky road to remembering is embarrassingly preposterous. Their ranks include Max Schlesinger (Isaach De Bankolé), a blind pastry chef-cum-magician who makes cupcakes out of psychedelic moths, butterflies, and maggots, and Belilal (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), a squat, curse-slinging warlock whose bushy beard and barrel chest makes him look like one of ZZ Top's touring bassists.
What makes this scenario work are the periodic flashes of intelligence that prove that the film's trio of screenwriters thought about what motivates Kaulder. Diesel's usual cockiness suits his character. As he points out to Dolan the 37th (Elijah Wood), Ellic's successor at Axe and Cross, there's nothing he hasn't seen. Diesel is well-used in that sense, proving he's more than a blunt instrument in scenes where he huskily broods and sweet-talks his way around the film's most unwieldy exposition. Few action stars can convincingly mansplain their way through a scene where mystic rune stones that control the elements are used to stop and start a thunderstorm. Diesel is on the short list.
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