Movie Review – Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
– Summary –
Director : Timur Bekmambetov
Year Of Release : 2012
Principal Cast : Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jimmi Simpson, Marton Csokas, Rufus Sewell, Alan Tudyk.
Approx Running Time : 105 Minutes
Synopsis: The story of Abraham Lincoln’s journey from a boy to a man, and eventually to the US Presidency, with vampires.
What we think : Sheer ludicrousness aside, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is everything the Twilight saga is not. It’s a fun, stylish, terribly inane romp in the very truest sense of the word, with a cast having a ball and a director at the top of his game. While I doubt Abe himself would look to kindly on the casual massacring of anybody, be they vamp or human, his core values and morals hold firm even in the face of demons from the dark. This is a film with little to bring to history, but a lot to enjoy about how it slots into it.
Four score and eleven kills ago….
Four score and about a hundred and fifty years ago, Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, began slaughtering vampires. Betcha didn’t know that bit of history, didya? Okay, so that’s probably not true, but Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a cavalier historical alternative which sets one of American’s greatest ever leaders against one of the world’s most feared and reviled monsters. The title alone evokes a hazy image of Honest Abe striding through the corridors of the White House, brandishing his hefty weapon of choice, dealing out death to the undead whilst still wearing that famous tall black hat. Sadly, that image isn’t represented in this film, but plenty of great ones are: in particular, Abraham Lincoln battling the vampire enemy aboard a steam train crossing a burning rail bridge. There’s a casual flamboyance to this film, a sense of adventure mixed with tinges of horror – there’s plenty of blood and gore, although considering the saturation level to which vampires have risen in pop-culture these days, I doubt that’ll put many folks off seeing it. Vampire Hunter is, if I can use the term, a genuine Bebmambetov film: flashy, visually gorgeous and stunningly mounted, although typically lacking in depth and emotive cohesion. Still, it’s a nice little film that never once tries to convince you of it being in any way legitimate.
1827, America – a young Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) meets a stranger in a bar, Henry (Dominic Cooper) whilst waiting to kill the man who murdered his parents. That man, Jack Barts (Marton Csokas) is actually a vampire, a member of the living dead, and a foe which Lincoln has no hope of defeating. Henry offers to teach Abe how to hunt down and kill vampires, although after Abe discovers that Henry is one as well, distances himself from his friend. Abe takes up residence in Springfield, Illinois, where he meets Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson), a shopkeeper and man who would become one of Abe’s strongest allies. Abe also meets Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the woman who would later become Abe’s wife; he keeps his vampire hunting job a secret from everyone, until he learns that Barts is an underling to the powerful vampire leader, Adam (Rufus Sewell), who plans to use his vampire forces in the American Civil War – Abraham becomes America’s 16th President thanks largely to his humanitarian efforts, including the famed Emancipation Proclamation, although by the time he does so, he has long since put away his vampire killing weapons. However, when Adam uses his forces to supplant the Union’s, Abe, together with Speed and Abe’s childhood friend William (Anthony Mackie), decides to even out the playing field by giving silver-based weapons to his troops.
It’s a fair statement that Americans love their history. By that I mean the history of America, not necessarily anybody else’s. Their patriotic verve permeates much of their culture, and their fascination and idolization of their historical figures is nearly unique in our world for its intensity. No other country reveres its ancestors quite as much, Id wager. Abraham Lincoln, it’s also fair to say, would be among the top 5 historical figures of American history, at least in terms of popularity and pop-culture prominence. The 16th President of the United States was known as the man who led the country through its greatest crisis – the Civil War, in which many southern US states wanted to secede from the Union – and who was eventually assassinated by a gunman at the John Ford Theatre, on April 14th, 1865. The legacy of Lincoln endures today, however, nearly 150 years after his death. Like many, we thought we knew all there was to know about the man dubbed “Honest Abe”, but Hollywood would like us to think differently. Apparently, Abraham Lincoln was a vampire slayer, predating Buffy by about a hundred years.
Vampire Hunter isn’t a serious historical document; it’s an invention from the pages of a book, inserting itself into the wall cavities of Lincoln’s actual history to remain plausibly possible were vampires to actually exist. The fact that in this film, Lincoln wields a silver-tipped axe to slay his enemies, and seems to tower over proceedings much like he towered over folks in real life, is inconsequential to the film’s desire to be as cool as possible. The concept of a period era vampire hunter, and a future US president no less, slaying the undead through civil war America is really just too good to be true. It’s a concept people dream their whole lives of having, and now we have it in the form of this movie. The story itself revolves around Lincoln’s entire life; from his childhood watching his mother Nancy die from vampire bite (history would have you believe it was milk sickness) to his life in Springfield, Illinois, before going on to politics and being voted in as President of the United States at a time when the country was undergoing its greatest challenge: the south’s secession from the north. All of Lincoln’s history is here, a “greatest hits” of the man, if you will: his wife, Mary Todd, is played convincingly by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, while other real-life characters such as Joshua Speed and Lincoln’s foremost political foe, Stephen A Douglas, are present as well.
What makes this film work isn’t so much the style of action, the visual effects or the way in which vampires are presented (these aren’t the sparkly kind), rather it’s the way in which Abraham’s actual life is wound in and around the film’s version of events that’s so compelling. It’s a little like a Back To The Future insertion of things we didn’t know that happened in the background, while actual history was occurring in the foreground. This wink-wink to the audience, this trippy, light-hearted flipping of reality in and around what we know to be true, gives the film its flamboyant flavoring, as if we’re investing in a secret nobody knew about prior to watching. Whether you accept the story for its audacity or not isn’t the point – the film does make dramatic license with the death of one of Lincoln’s sons, Willie, who dies from apparent vampire bite (in reality, Typhoid fever) and crystallizes Abraham’s struggle against the vampire foe into a tangible narrative – Vampire Hunter is a fantasy of the first order, an unbelievable account of a historical figure given near superhuman abilities to wield and axe and whose feats at protecting the country should be legendary.
Vampire Hunter is like German beer. You have to have a lot to get drunk, but man, when you do, you get drunk. Director Timur Bebmambetov, best known as the guy who helmed the films Day Watch, Night Watch (both dealing with vampires, wouldn’t you know it) and the Angelina Jolie vehicle Wanted, slices and dices his way through the story with a camera that never stops moving, a visual palette that captures the shadow and light of the period in such exquisite detail, and with a sense of action that seems as exacting as it is glorious to watch. There’s a lack of accurate physics here, however: people fly, spin and twirl through the air like they’re able to defy gravity, while even normal humans have the ability to display enormous feats of strength (Abe chops through a foot-thick tree truck in training just by getting a little mad), but it’s all in good fun. Yes, it’s not possible for people to do these things, but then again, it’s not possible for the dead to come back to life either, so in a film where that can happen, who’s to say what can’t? Bebmambetov is such a showman, such a visualist, that his unique stamp is over every frame of this beast. While I’m not entirely sure his cinematic ethos is applauded by everyone in the industry (I’m sure Michael Bay freeze-frames every shot to see if he’s plagiarizing), it’s certainly engaging for the audience. In a world where the term “overkill” seems derogatory, Bebmambetov makes it into an artform. Lincoln sweeps through swarms of vampires, spinning and slashing with his deadly axe and sending corpses and blood flying across the screen. It’s all highly choreographed, of course, and it looks more like a ballet than a dance of death at times, which probably has influences more from John Woo than anybody else. Woo did this kind of thing back in the 80’s.
The cast all perform their roles well: Benjamin Walker has the unenviable task of personifying Lincoln through his teens and into adult life, with a well crafter prosthetic to aide him transform. Walker provides a solid base for the film, resolute and very Lincoln-like – I talk as if I know what Lincoln might have been like, but even if this impression is way off base, it’s an “iconic” portrayal in terms of what people expect Lincoln to be like. Mary Elizabeth Winstead provides the film’s emotional core for Abraham, as his fiancee and then wife, Mary. She’s Abraham’s staunchest supporter, even though she’s not involved with any vampire slaying, and Winstead gives her an air of quiet, reserved dignity covering a light-hearted impish foundation. Anthony Mackie and Jimmi Simpson provide adequate support as Abe’s partners and friends, although I think Simpson has the better written role, with Joshua Speed being one of the film’s more memorable characters. Dominic Cooper is mysterious as Henry, Abe’s trainer, providing a pivot point for Lincoln’s battle through being a vampire himself thanks to the actions of Adam. Henry’s a tragic figure, and Cooper does the role justice. Adam, played by Rufus Sewell, is yet another Bad Guy performance from Sewell where he’s not really forced to give us anything new. I’m pretty sure I saw Sewell play the same role in A Knight’s Tale and The Illusionist, although here he has fangs instead of a sword or a cape. Aussie actor Marton Csokas is convincingly evil as Bart, the vampire who kills Abe’s mother, and against whom Abe seeks vengeance.
As an action film, Vampire Hunter does have a few flaws, the most egregious being the large gaps between major set-pieces. Abe’s transition from normal man, to vampire hunter, and eventually to US President, seems to take precedence over the very thing the title would indicate – vampires – although when the vamps do arrive and the fighting does commence, it’s super stylish and cool to watch. It’s the pauses for story in between these moments that tends to find the film foundering at times. I’m all for character, in fact I’d rather build character than slaughter vamps, but the entire premise of the film is set around hunting and slaying vampires and so the film must deliver on this. It does, but whether it’s enough depends on your tolerance for an overdose of background story and plot setup. What action there is is extremely well filmed – physically impossible, sure, but well filmed. The major set-piece of the film, a massive steam-train attack sequence, delivers all of Bebmambetov’s visual acumen in one solid explosive moment, a sequence with more gravity defying stunts and vampiric slayings than in any Matrix or Twilight movie. It’s deliriously stupid, but entertaining nonetheless. And it fits right into the films established style.
You’d be a complete goob to hate this film. If you don’t like it, that’s because you aren’t the demographic for it. It’s for people who don’t care if history is revised a little, for those who don’t mind seeing feats of impossible human physicality and style-over-substance action. It’s for fans of comic-book style violence and themes, where people are representatives of what we want to be, not how we are. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is, by its very nature, a fantasy film in which a real life historical figure goes up against a mythical figure of human fear, and that fear is vanquished. It’s nothing more than a large scale visual assault for the senses, and if you go in expecting more than that, you’ll be disappointed. Folks willing to accept the film on its own terms, will have a blast.
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