The Last Witch Hunter has wild ideas hidden in generic trappings. It features a gleefully nonsensical plot, a mysterious original(ish) concoction of mythology, and plenty of striking fantasy horror imagery. It starts in a murky distant past where men wielding flaming swords clash with shape-shifting witches in the cavernous roots of a massive dark tree that we learn is the source of the Black Plague. Then, we skip forward 800 years into the future – our time – to find the one remaining Witch Hunter. The dying Witch Queen cursed him with immortality, and so he has spent his centuries resigned to hunting down the evil witches and warlocks making the world a worse place. He does so under the careful watch of a supernatural council hidden in the bowels of a New York cathedral, the better for his Catholic priest assistants to help him. All that’s wonderfully ridiculous, and refreshingly nutty, but it moves in heaving clunks of bland thriller mechanics and endless expository dialogue.
The Witch Hunter is Kaulder (Vin Diesel), a towering bald tough guy who swaggers around showing magic users what’s what. There’s a scene in which he enters an underground bar for magic people and they preemptively flee. The owner (Rose Leslie) lets him know that her kind view him as a genocidal fascist, which, considering the whole single-mindedly hunting their kind for centuries, seems like a fair enough label. Still, we’re to understand Kaulder is a kindhearted guy out to indefinitely imprison only bad witches. That’s nice. He’s soulfully mourning his mortality by staring off into space, hiding his psychic wounds behind a jaded exterior. His priest chaperone (Michael Caine) chastises him for always running late. “Time works differently for me,” he rumbles. Diesel has commitment, and investment in the loopy ins and outs that helps bring some reverence to the ridiculous.
Caine’s priest tells us plenty about the history of the Ax and Cross, a secret order of Catholic officials who have passed the Witch Hunting legacy down one at a time for centuries. A new, younger one (Elijah Wood) is waiting in the wings. The movie starts to shape up like a buddy cop movie in a conspiratorial cultish underground monster movie mode, investigating, say, a blind warlock (Isaach De Bankolé) whose butterfly-infested bakery uses mind-altering grubs in the dough. Soon, though, they learn the long-dead Witch Queen (Julie Engelbrecht) has minions (like Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) plotting to revive her and take over the world with her Plague once more. This leads to one of the movie’s best moments, where the camera pushes in on a character who has put two and two together and murmurs the one place that has enough dark power to restore this dormant evil to full life: Witch Jail.
It’s a race through dream spaces and nightmarish hallucinations to find the MacGuffins necessary to restore order to the world and stave off a malevolent resurrection. The main problem is Kaulder’s memory, though it is totally understandable that he can’t remember a crucial detail from 800 years prior and thus must hunt down a spell that’ll restore him. He teams up with the bar-owning witch and his priests to walk around explaining the rules of the magic, the monsters they encounter, ancient curse antidotes they need, right when each new factor appears. Sure, there are swordfights and spells cast and glowing doodads flipped around. But mostly those involved make sure to thoroughly explain what they’re about to do, and then, once done, explain what they just did. And even then I still didn’t really understand every detail.
It’d be more fun if the screenplay by Cory Goodman (Priest) and Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless (Dracula Untold) would let its characters shut up for a second, take a deep breath, and be more than exposition spigots, because director Breck Eisner (Sahara) does a credible job selling the outlandish ideas visually. When a sorceress uses a necklace to awaken a tree monster, it’s not hard to figure out the causal relationship. And when a sword impaling one character causes pain in another, the connection is clear. We don’t necessarily need people tiresomely expounding. Just move along. Show us cool things. I liked the Witch Queen’s look: like a life-size woodcarving brought to life, with a mop of greasy spaghetti hair and a thick brain stem braid. It’s icky and creepy. And when she’s dead (the first time) she looks like burnt firewood. It’s all the better for remaining mysterious, unexplained. This is a movie about deep, dark magic threatening to burst forth from underneath the surface of modernity, and instead of urgency or menace, it’s just neat to look at.