The Last Witch Hunter

I was thinking…

…of how many films hinge more on the strength or notability of their antagonists more than on any empathetic connections provided by their protagonists.

Oh, you want some examples, do you?

All right, let’s think of some of the most memorable films throughout history. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, for instance. Norman Bates is not only the force that carries the film along, but Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane–for all intents and purposes the protagonist of the film–is (spoiler alert) killed in the first half of the picture.

Or how about another one of the American Film Institute’s most recognized and most iconic villains, Darth Vader from the Star Wars saga? In fact, the whole film series depends heavily on the clout of its antagonists.

Ernst Stavro Blofeld from the James Bond series is, to this day, synonymous with evil masterminds, so much so that Mike Myer’s parody series of Austin Powers is as much if not more about Dr. Evil than about the titular character.

Then there’s the Joker from Batman (or better yet, The Dark Knight), the Wicked Witch of the West, and even an antagonist that masquerades as a protagonist: my namesake, Alex, from A Clockwork Orange.

None of these films or the protagonists for whom we are supposed to root would be half of what they ended up being without their respective nemeses. Nemesis, originally from the Greek, literally means ‘retribution’ or ‘to give what is due.’ In this respect, the villain must be, to borrow now from the Chinese, the yang to our hero’s yin. The shadow cast by the light. Opposite but equal, in order to provide a total balance.

And then we have the bad guys from Vin Diesel’s latest outing, The Last Witch Hunter. Although the Witch Queen is meant to be the main antagonist in the film, she makes only two main appearances, leaving a minion to be the focal baddie throughout the bulk of the picture.

This is one of the film’s fundamental flaws. This baddie, a warlock who calls himself Belial, has one thing going for him: his respectable 6’2″ height. But in all other respects he falls short of being the antagonist worthy of an immortal witch hunter.

More on that in a minute.

The Last Witch Hunter follows the 800 year mission of a presumably Germanic warrior known as Kaulder (Vin DieselFast and the Furious). During the Dark Ages, Kaulder and his fellow witch hunters are accompanied by a priest named Dolan to a gargantuan tree inhabited by a Witch Queen and her followers. The witch is responsible for unleashing a plague on mankind which has taken the lives of Kaulder’s wife and daughter.

When Kaulder finally confronts and defeats the hag, she curses him with immortality and that he will never know peace.

Fast-forward to the present New York City (either because nothing happens in the world outside of New York or because New York is just the perfect place for freaky witches to hang out). Kaulder’s friend and handler, Dolan the 36th (Michael CaineThe Dark Knight trilogy), is retiring; but the night he does so, he is supposedly murdered by one of the Witch Queen’s loyal followers, the aforementioned Belial. It is Belial’s hope to resurrect his beloved queen and, subsequently, unleash the ancient plague to destroy humanity.

Replacing the 36th is Dolan the 37th (Elijah WoodThe Lord of the Rings trilogy). As he tries to track his predecessor’s killer, Kaulder seeks the aid of a good witch, Chloe (Rose LeslieDownton Abbey, Game of Thrones).

Now, back to the crappy bad guy. Played by the Connecticut-born Olafur Darri Olafsson, Kaulder’s most prominent threat in the movie is nothing more than an overweight, thick-bearded, fur-trimmed trench coat wearing guy who would look more at home at a comic convention or similar nerdfest such as GenCon. Despite the fact that he chose a name from Hebrew that means ‘worthless’ (although it is also largely used to mean ‘wicked’), his greatest witchy power is to open up a hole in the ground through which he can escape. But seeing as how it’s probably nothing more than a shortcut to his bedroom in his mother’s basement, it’s not very intimidating.

I saw dozens of people who matched this guy’s description walking around the East Side of Milwaukee when I was a teenager. The kind of guys who order cranberry juice in everything because it kinda looks like they’re drinking blood. In short–losers.

With a film hinging on the weight of this antagonist, it’s difficult to take the rest too seriously.

This is unfortunate, as I saw a potential for a new franchise that would span hundreds of fictional years. Had they simply approached the story from the first timeframe: the Dark Ages, they could have moved ahead and had ol’ Vin Diesel hacking witches to bits through the Renaissance, the Napoleonic Wars, the Victorian age, etc. The story then could have culminated in a final series of films set in the present, during which the Witch Queen finally returns and Kaulder must face his true nemesis.

But alas, they opted for the one-shot that spans eight centuries.

Also unfortunate was the film score. Composed by Steve Jablonsky, the music never quite reached its potential, much as the film itself did not. Jablonsky’s best effort to this day is the heroic and choral masterpiece from 2007’s Transformers, and I am always eager to hear more of his work approach that early benchmark.

The cinematography and editing also left a great deal to be desired. So frenetic and space-jumping are some of the cuts during fight scenes, its confusing if not completely impossible to follow the action. The dreams sequences, however, are pieced together in an appropriately jarring fashion, leading to the proper feel.

Even with its disappointments, The Last Witch Hunter is still an entertaining Halloween popcorn flick. Nothing too scary and nothing really approaching gore, but just enough darkness to make now a good time to see it.

Ammo Dump rating:  5 out of 10 flaming swords

I’ll talk more about this film and others during my (every once in a while) radio show. Listen in on WJBC-AM1230 in Central Illinois. For the rest of the world, listen on WJBC.com or the “Rdio” app on your smart phone. And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter: @ALphaEXray to find out when I’ll be on the air.

The Last Witch Hunter
Rated PG-13
Run time: 106 minutes

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