Review: ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER - Bloody But Toothless

Jim Tudor, Contributor
Four Score and one hundred and seventy million dollars ago, our studio moguls brought forth on this pop culture a new movie, conceived in literature, and dedicated to the preposterousness that Abe Lincoln be re-created to kill.

Kill vampires, that is. And so we now have ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER - the most unabashedly ridonkulous high concept movie to venture down the Hollywood pike in a while. Although it's based upon the faux-historical lark of a book by Seth Grahame-Smith ("Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" author, also credited with the film's screenplay), in which America's sixteenth president is revealed to have been a secret battler of bloodsuckers (his origin contorted in kind), ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER takes it's place among other punch line-titled works that tell you all you need to know about the movie with a name, a job, and a colon: PAUL BLART: MALL COP or DEUCE BIGALOW: MALE GIGOLO or LARRY THE CABLE GUY: HEALTH INSPECTOR.
The main difference between this less-than-presidential film and the other torrid titles listed above, among other things, is that the above movies are really trying to be funny. ABRAHAM LINCOLN is playing it as straight as it can, as a never-winking-to-the-audience action/horror show, following convention while staying sloppily within the well-known confines of Lincoln's true-life story. It's big, it's cutting edge, it's 1860s, it's choreographed martial arts and death-dealing, it's period costumes, it's digitally color graded 3D pomposity jumping up and down desperate to be acknowledged as clever. But is it fun?

Unfortunately, no. ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER is far too busy trying to be cool to ever truly be fun. But the trouble is, with a title like that, the movie had darn well better be fun. Afterwards, some at the screening shrugged and said it in fact was fun. Fun in what way, no one bothered to say. For me, this loud and noisy hyper-digital bloodletting is not my idea of fun. Not this time, anyhow. Nothing against well-rendered, artistically wrought loud and noisy hyper-digital bloodletting, but this film fails to hit that target in a satisfying way (although director Timur Bekmambetov of NIGHT WATCH fame and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (!!) come close in isolated moments, such as a loopy and visceral horse stampede).

This is not a historical Lincoln drama with vampire action added in, it's a vampire action movie with Lincoln drama laid on top of it. In other words, ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER is a pedestrian contemporary action flick, gussied up with U.S. Civil War era accoutrements and Honest Abe conformed into the disposable butt-kickin' star. That's not to say that star Benjamin Walker fails as Lincoln; he actually does pretty well in what is a double-demanding role, what with having to do justice to America's Greatest President, and also satisfy nit-picky seen-it-all action movie fans. He's both butt-kicking AND presidential. The Great Emancipator and a great decapitator.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER is a would-be biopic in two parts, abruptly joined at the midpoint of the film. Our hero goes from young vengeance-ridden log splitter to Civil War-time president within the span of a ten second voiceover. The whole timetable of John Ford's YOUNG MR. LINCOLN (1939, starring Henry Fonda) is ignored. (Add a few vampires to that one and drop it in the middle of this new Lincoln film, and you've got one weird Extended Cut.)

All the while, there is a strange unsettling quality about the whole endeavor. I suspect that it has to do with the way the far-fetched liberties are taken with history. I'm not objecting to the fact that they are taken - goodness knows I've enjoyed my share of wacky Lincoln interpretations - but "Abraham Lincoln and his Time Machine" or Conan O'Brien's perpetual goofing on the icon seem a world apart from ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER, a title punch line stretched out to feature length to the point that any inherent humor crumpled away long ago. Of course Lincoln's legacy is rock solid, and no degree of fictional re-imagining, "sacrilegious" or not, is ever going to tarnish that. It's more about the video game blandness of the finished product colliding with the very title ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER - the promise of a provocative spirit that just isn't there.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER is relatively serviceable, maybe worth a look but not two for those so inclined. To me it feels like some kind of missed opportunity. Lincoln kills a lot of vampires, combats a lot of "darkness", if you will - but to what end? To reduce the entire Civil War era U.S. South to a cartoonish evil monsterland in need of killing? To allow a much-needed catharsis of seeing our greatest president as a hero we can relate to today? (And if this IS the kind of hero can more readily relate to today, what does that say about us?)

It seems to me that every so often, there's this need in America to experience cinematic presidents as bona fide action heroes (Harrison Ford in AIR FORCE ONE or Bill Pullman in INDEPENDENCE DAY - two mid-1990s examples, also two of the most prominent), perhaps a compensation for a certain lack of expected action (policy) in the real Oval Office. Not to get political, but I think at this point many of us suspect that if President Obama were charged with vampire extermination, he'd send in a string of drones armed with wooden stakes and then maybe hit the golf course. A far cry from Benjamin Walker's hands-on horror exterminator bearing the likeness and partial origin of the leader our true president so often begs comparison to.

If this type of fantastical mash-up needs to happen again, we can only hope that (to once again distort the Gettyburg Address...) this notion, under gobs of cash, shall have a new birth of fandom--and that a president fighting people, killing people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER opens wide June 22nd, 2012 in the U.S., and expands to other countries throughout the summer.

- Jim Tudor
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