‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’ So Bad It’s Good
By STEWART SMITH
"Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" is almost impervious to criticism.
It exists somewhere firmly between "good" and "bad," thoroughly aware of what it projects, yet also never smug enough to wink at the camera. It delivers precisely what it advertises (anyone expecting something other than a president slaying the undead should get their head checked) and it does so while playing things entirely straight. It doesn't constantly wink at the audience, begging them to agree with how silly the concept is, the humor comes from how committed the film is to being oh-so-serious and you can practically hear director Timur Bekmambetov giggling from behind the camera.
In other words, it almost doesn't matter what you think of it, "AL: VH" simply is what it is and it isn't terribly worried about impressing anyone.
Personally, I had a blast with it. It's sort of refreshing to have a movie that revels in its silliness but that also doesn't aim to bludgeon the audience with its self-awareness. We're living in time where smug cynicism seems to rule the day, where everyone wants to be the first to jump up and declare that they "get it." So to have a movie that acknowledges its own silliness by playing things straight is a nice change of pace.
It makes me happy that something of this sort embraces its silliness. It's become more than a bit overbearing when so many comic book or similar properties are presented only as grim and gritty seriousness. The film's color palette and fanged adversaries may imply that this treads the path of gritty seriousness, but when our 16th president uses a silver pocketwatch like it's a brass knuckle or all manner of kung fu moves while brandishing an axe to dispatch the undead, well, it seems obvious where the film's intentions lay.
"AL: VH" is actually the perfect film to illustrate the critic's most important maxim of "Judge a film by its own merits and on its own terms." Does the film deliver what it purports to? Thoroughly. Does that make it a "good" movie? Almost certainly not. The script is still hammy beyond belief (slavery was perpetuated by vampires, didn't you know?) and the whole thing ultimately feels like the world's most expensive, well-made B-movie. It is, however, an undoubtedly entertaining movie.
Tim Burton's name (as a producer) is the one most prominently splashed across all the marketing for this, but that's largely because there aren't any "name" actors to fall back on and Bekmambetov has yet to really make a mainstream splash. That is to say, don't go in expecting anything that resembles a Burton film, this is far more kinetic than anything Burton's done lately. If you're familiar enough with Bekmambetov's work at all, then this will fit nicely between "Wanted" and his "Night Watch" and "Day Watch" films. It's not as outrageously stylish in the way the "Watch" films are, but it has a bit more of a visual identity than "Wanted" did. That said, I'll leave it up to you to decide if he intentionally used the sepia-toned filter to make certain scenes look like a really expensive episode of "Drunk History" from FunnyOrDie.com.
Bekmambetov was smart, though, to cast an unknown as Lincoln, putting anyone with a recognizable celebrity status would have just made it feel that much more like an actual parody (assuming any big name would have ever dared to go near it). That said, Benjamin Walker acquits himself well, proving to be capable enough of imbuing Lincoln with a tortured pathos as he hides his nocturnal secret from Mary Todd (the always lovely Mary-Elizabeth Winstead) while also handling physical demands of the action scenes quite well.
Taken on its own, the action scenes are some of the better I've seen in a while. There's a bit of quick editing going on, but by and large Bekmambetov keeps his camera steady and pulled back far enough to allow us to appreciate the delicious absurdity of watching Honest Abe pull off some wuxia-style martial arts moves in both fisticuffs as well as with that axe. You can't help shake the feeling that Walker was chosen in significant part because he looks eerily similar to Liam Neeson (who, at the time of Walker's casting was still set to play Lincoln in Steven Spielberg's non-fiction film), but he fits the role well.
It's hard to know what else to say about "AL: VH." It is what it is and has no qualms about being as such. In terms of historical revisionism it makes "Inglourious Basterds" look like a Ken Burns documentary by comparison, but chances are you'll know from the outset if this will appeal to you since what you see in the advertising is precisely what you get.