Sometimes it pays to be pessimistic. Based on the murky-looking trailers, “The Last Witch Hunter” looked absolutely unwatchable. It looked like the kind of movie that even the studio realizes is a bomb, so they push it back for several months and then dump it in January (“The Seventh Son” is the epitome of this tactic, except that it was pushed back for years rather than months). To be sure, it is almost that bad. But with expectations so low, it’s hard not to notice the few things that the movie does right.
Vin Diesel stars as Kaulder, a 13th-century witch hunter who opens the movie by going after the witch who started the Black Plague (Julie Engelbrecht). He’s not planning to survive the mission, which is fine by him because his death will mean that he gets to rejoin his wife and daughter, who he lost to the plague. But the witch throws a curve at him; right before he kills her, she curses him with immortality. It seems she didn’t think this curse through. Kaulder hunts more of her kind throughout history, though at some point he goes from killing all of them to only killing some and imprisoning most.
Cut to present day. You’d think Kaulder would be mopey, but he seems to be okay with the arrangement. He’s got a lucrative deal with a church-based witch-hunting group called The Axe and Cross, he’s up on modern technology, and he gets to enjoy a number of torrid affairs. His handler and friend Dolan (Michael Caine) just died, but such is life for the deathless Kaulder. He gets a new Dolan (Elijah Wood), who seems eager to help. A threat emerges from Belial (Olafur Darri Olafsson), who may just have the antidote to Kaulder’s immortality, harkening back to the day he was cursed. Kaulder needs the help of Chloe (Rose Leslie), a witch who specializes in memories, to know what Belial knows. Can Kaulder save the world, possibly without immortality?
The movie does do a very few things right. I liked the chemistry between Diesel and his co-stars, especially Caine. When the script goes for jokes, they usually land (my favorite is one from Caine about a swarm of insects, followed by one from Wood after taking a cheap shot at a bad guy, then one from Diesel about a city block that used to be a cornfield). I also liked the design of the Black Plague witch. She’s basically camouflaged to look like a tree, but in a yucky way.
Enough with the mushy stuff, this movie does a lot wrong too. I described the movie as “murky-looking” earlier, and nowhere is that more true than in the film’s opening moments. The scene is so poorly-lit that I had no idea what was going on or who was being killed. The special effects are phony-looking (I seem to be making that complaint a lot lately, but trust me, it’s always true). A twist toward the end is awkward, and I seriously doubt that it was always the plan for that character. And it wouldn’t be a bad movie about magic if the movie wasn’t making up its own rules as it went along. Every time the characters get in trouble, there’s a device, power, or contact that we didn’t know about until that point that can be used to save them.
“The Last Witch Hunter” is clearly a bomb, but it has a more endearing cast than it deserves in Diesel, Caine, and Wood. It’s also getting better box office than it deserves, thanks to some of its stiffest competition getting dropped by thousands of theaters at the last minute, making it the default occult movie for the Halloween season (at least for adults, kids still have “Goosebumps” and “Hotel Transylvania 2”). Hunt this down only if you really want to see something Halloween weekend.
Two Stars out of Five.
“The Last Witch Hunter” is rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence and frightening images. Its running time is 106 minutes.