I’d kind of forgotten that Vin Diesel can’t act. He’s a charming, gruff, improbable presence in thrillers full of non-actors, so I don’t usually think of him as an actor, let alone weigh up his ability to act. Mostly I think of him as a D&D player bucking every assumption people make about D&D players; he’s not a skinny nerd, he’s not an overweight nerd, he’s not hyper verbal, he’s not living in his mom’s basement, yada yada yada. Then along comes The Last Witch Hunter and I remember that the abiding characteristic of D&D players is that they’re making up an incoherent story set in a fantasy world and trying to bring their characters to life when they’ve no real acting skills. Now, suddenly, Vin looks like the D&D player after all.
And for once, he’s the guy to blame; reportedly he even based his character in the movie on one of his old D&D characters. Which is actually way more thought than any of mine ever got; as with most D&D players, my characters had job descriptions. Even names were pretty much an afterthought. Kaulder’s got a backstory and everything. Tragically, he’s surrounded by people who can act, including one who was in a fantasy franchise that could crush The Last Witch Hunter by just rolling over in its sleep; yup, that’s Frodo getting third billing, with Elijah Wood looking more than usually malnourished and fey. Spoiler alert; anyone actually surprised by his fourth act betrayal has been living under a rock; when a character starts out dressed like a priest and for literally no reason shows up in a white turtleneck sweater for the back half of the movie, any seasoned filmgoer knows to expect the worst. Also present, someone else from a different fantasy franchise which could crush The Last Witch Hunter by sneezing, but would be much more likely to disembowel it and run around with its head on a rope; yup, it’s Ygritte from Game of Thrones. Vin’s bracketed himself between two talented actors who will remind his audience of the two biggest beasts in fantasy. How’s he going to get out of this one?
Probably not with the help of Michael Caine, whose almost stationary performance is still more acting than Vin can work up. Caine’s playing Father Dolan, the latest representative of the Catholic church to act as Kaulder’s handler for the shadowy Axe and Cross agency. I can only imagine that they picked that name because "Vikings for Jesus” didn’t play well in the previews, but I bet most of the target audience will be squealing that Vikings weren’t Christian. By 800 years ago, when this is all supposed to be kicking off in a flashback, most Vikings were Christian, but it doesn’t feel right; Vikings should be yacking on about Valhalla and such as. At least in a dumb movie like this one.
It’s a pretty ho-hum movie. The visuals are occasionally cool, and the ideas about magic are at least an effort to come up with a magic system which feels organic and novel. Weirdly, less of it would have been more. There’s an idea there which would have driven a more subtle approach to magic, but instead they go big almost immediately, and it just turns into a gaudy CGI fest which is just like any other dose of spectacular special effects. There’s a good logical idea in the plot too, but they couldn’t figure out a way to fill the running time with it, and so there’s a splatter of distractions and side quests along the way that feel less like the plot developing and more like the cast waiting for it to catch up after it’s had a smoke break.
Things end with the end of the world averted (as usual in such fare) and six more ends of the world queued up for later, but something tells me that they’re more likely to be coming to a basement near Vin than a cinema near you.