Critics lampoon him as a fast/furious lug nut, a hunk of well-oiled meat who doesn’t so much act as ka-thunk his face and body through its limited gears. To hell with them. Vin Diesel may not run smoothly, but he runs with purpose and conviction, and any line of dialogue processed through him comes out sounding like he believes it, even the sentimental ones. And the corny let’s-do-this ones, the ones that sound like the terse, keep-you-reading chapter-endings of airport bestsellers? When Diesel gets one of those, the story around him surges like a video-game racecar that’s just hit a nitro.
That conviction is his great asset, outside the mad physical fact of him. It’s why seeing his name on an un-pedigreed release like The Last Witch Hunter — as star and producer — is reason for hope: For all his car movies and xXxes, his true heart pumps dragon blood. Diesel’s as dedicated to D&D as he is to his lifting routine, and he honors the game and its pulp roots in the first minutes of Witch Hunter. Wearing a dwarven beard and waving a flaming sword, he and an armored band of vaguely medieval men descend into a haunted tree to stab a bug-puking fury they’re calling “The Witch Queen.” The sequence is too quick, too chopped up, for us really to sink into it, to soak up the wicked viny production design or to fear from what burl or hellmouth the next tendril might lash.
Compare that to act one of Riddick, another RPG-night channeling of Robert E. Howard stories: In it, Diesel, alone, fights and hides from monsters in a cave on another planet, until he actually seems to level up and defeat the beast he couldn’t at first. It’s scary, rousing, elemental, and sincere in its simplicity — what a disappointment it is when the actual story finally kicks in. Some ambitious young screenwriter should send him 100 plotless pages of dungeon-delving and dragon-bashing, as that seems to be the movie he’s looking for, and he’s got the clout to get it made. (Fan theory: The Riddick movies are actually the sci-fi RPG led by Toretto and Letty at those Fast & Furious family barbecues.)
For now, we have The Last Witch Hunter, a $90 million supernatural time-killer that’s mostly set in the here and now rather than in, say, Gary Gygax’s Greyhawk, although Diesel does grumble something about facing a “fourteenth-level warlock.” Turns out Diesel’s character — Kaulder — got cursed by that witch in that tree, and now he’s doomed to spend the rest of eternity walking the Earth and stomping witches, a fate he finds enjoyable and highly remunerative. (If that curse seems counterproductive from the perspective of the original witch, congratulate yourself on seeing the twist coming.) He reports to some vague Witch Council, and he’s partnered for centuries with helpmeet priests (Elijah Wood as the new guy; Michael Caine as the one in his last week before retirement), but the movie leaves it to you to work out the geeky specifics. That feels like trust rather than an omission: In the press notes, producer Mark Canton boasts of his actors’ deep Comic Con CVs, saying, “I believe no one has ever put together a cast that features so many heroes of other mythological adventures.” Everyone involved knows the audience has seen enough movies, TVs, and comics to grasp a fantastical setup on the go, so there’s no info-dumping here about the film’s dreamwalking, secret societies, witch prisons, rules of magic, or why exactly Diesel plucks a fly from the flesh of a corpse. (And no one ever lays out what precisely the Catholics have to do with all this.)
Instead, Kaulder’s off to the hunt. Witches live among us but aren’t allowed to jack with humans; when they do, Kaulder collars them for the council’s judgment. This time, Kaulder is investigating the death of a friend, and the release of more-potent-than-usual magic — and there’s a suggestion that the council is covering something up. What follows is an urban-fantasy noir, with crime scenes and clues and some inspired witchery. Kaulder suspects that the answers lie in repressed memories of that prologue battle, so he enlists the aid of a bartender/potion-maker played by Rose Leslie (Game of Thrones), to plunge into his past; meanwhile, the case shows us the highs and lows of Manhattan’s witch society.
The story works out like you might expect. The joys are in the way director Breck Eisner, like Diesel, is earnest about this goofiness. His direction might not showcase the full wit of the script, but it does honor its inventiveness: If this is the kind of thing you think you enjoy, it’s recommended for its gummy-bear tree, its charred yet smoldering witch corpses, its descent into the writhing tree-roots of hell, some business with a pulsing ancient heart, and the return of that flaming sword, which of course is named Hexenbane — how could it not be?
The action is only intermittent, which turns out to be a good thing, since it’s shot and staged with little distinction. The sets and dialogue are more potent. And there’s one instance of perfect dumb grandeur: In a dark moment, when it looks as if evil might blot out New York, Caine gazes through a window and intones, with great solemnity, “Look at you, you great bitch of a morning.” Give him 1,000 experience points!
The title’s ambiguity — is he the last witch who hunts, or the last hunter of witches? — is cleared up pretty quickly, but it turns out to be a lie. As with Jedi, there’s always another.
The film has nothing to do with James Morrow’s excellent novel The Last Witchfinder.
The witch stuff is kind of creepy for a PG-13, but not as much as the season’s grandest witch-related entertainment, the current run of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina from Archie comics, by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Robert Hack. That’s no joke: The new Sabrina is smart, emotional bride-of-Satan teen-witch horror.
The Last Witch Hunter
Directed by Breck Eisner
Opens October 23