THE LAST WITCH HUNTER is a long slog. There are few genuine scares. There are few remarkable special effects. There is, instead, a pervasive and persistent lassitude to this tale of an immortal witch hunter, Kaulder (Vin Diesel), and the complicated relationship he has tracking down the eponymous practitioners of magic.
Kaulder is very good at what he does. He has been at it 800 years, and so that should be no surprise. A certain ennui should also come as no surprise for one who has been alive for so many centuries, and, as noted by another character, been lied to more than anyone else in history. Still, that doesn’t explain the way Diesel acts as though he has been injected with enough Novocain to benumb from the top of his shiny bald pate, to the tips of his toesies encased in those heavy boots. For the first part of the film, the proceedings are lightened by the jocular person of Michael Caine as Kaulder’s 36th Dolon. That would be the priest tasked to keep tabs on Kaulder, to be his confessor, and to duly note his exploits for the archives of the Cross and Axe, the super-secret arm of the Catholic Church that oversees Kaulder’s mission to make the human world safe from witches. Dolon 36, is feeling the strain of his 50-year assignment, and after offering sage words to his charge about living life rather than just living for centuries, retires from his post, much to Kaulder’s chagrin. At least we are told via dialogue that Kaulder is chagrined. Diesel doesn’t let on one way or another.
Dolon 37 (Elijah Wood) is a chipper young priest with a history with witches and an over-eagerness that neither Kaulder nor the audience cares for. And, because this is a formula film, the changing of the guard could not come at a worse time. The ancient Witch Queen who killed Kaulder’s wife and young daughter all those years ago, and then cursed Kaulder with eternal life as he was killing her, still has some minions making mischief in the world, and they’re using a dark magic that violates the truce between the Cross and Axe and the Witches Council, for which Kaulder has become the enforcer.
With the truce in jeopardy, and Kaulder out for revenge, the plot becomes a turgid journey through one set piece after another, as Kaulder displays his ability to heal almost instantaneously from everything from breaking every bone in his hand, to being burned to a near crisp. Naturally he finds a sympathetic witch (Rose Leslie) who becomes his ally after serving him an unusually potent maraschino cherry, the better to allow Kaulder to rediscover his softer side. Naturally he has confrontations galore that all end in improbable stalemates, the better to show off the special effects. Naturally, there is an apocalypse on the horizon, the better to add a sense of urgency to Kaulder’s mission.
One of the few interesting things in the flick is learning that witches drown their sorrows by chugging absinthe straight, and that the one who sides with Kaulder doesn’t know that the witches in Salem were hanged, not burnt at the stake.
At least there’s an attempt to make the Witch Queen original. She is a thing of rotting vegetation, and a spinal column that exits at the base of her skull rather than taking its place down her back. She still manages to remain upright, perhaps through the bracing nature of cellulose, or perhaps through general cussedness at having to share the world with humans.
THE LAST WITCH HUNTER stumbles out of the gate, falls, and never rights itself. For the Halloween offering that its studio hoped it would be, it’s all trick and no treat.