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The Last Witch Hunter (2015)
Director: Breck Eisner

review by J.C. Hartley
Spoiler alert!
In my opinion, there are two kinds of film review, those where the film itself is of such interest that the reviewer can virtually ignore it, beyond a few lines describing the basic scenario, and fill the rest of the piece with references revealing his own erudition, and the fact that he is an all-round cultural smarty-pants; and those where the film is so straightforward there is nothing to say except what happens. So, spoilers ahoy! But first, a word about Vin Diesel...

Diesel grabbed our attention in 2000 in the excellent Pitch Black, playing amoral killer Riddick. It was a film notable for not making any concession to explaining or mitigating the anti-hero's violent nature. The Fast And The Furious followed in 2001, and xXx in 2002, this latter hailed in some quarters as showing up the James Bond franchise for the tired old shtick it had become. Pitch Black spawned a couple of sequels, with a fourth planned apparently, and while xXx didn't in fact put paid to Bond, Diesel is again returning to play his original character Xander Cage.

The terrific impact these early films had at the box-office seem to have given Diesel quite a bit of heft in Hollywood, which allowed him to ride over the disappointment of the Riddick sequels. The Chronicles Of Riddick allowed Diesel to play opposite his 'acting hero' Dame Judi Dench; I'm not making this up. From their fairly humble beginnings the Fast And Furious films have created a massive gas giant of a franchise, attracting action stars with its gravitational pull. Unlike Stallone's vanity project The Expendables, the Fast And Furious films have often garnered a decent critical response, although one suspects that with ever more outrageous stunts the films may contain the seeds of their own destruction, and when they put a muscle car in orbit audiences will finally concede that the series has got a bit silly.

Diesel has considerable screen presence but his range seems limited, that said I haven't seen him in any of his more serious roles. There's an obvious 'wooden' joke I could make with him voicing the role of Groot in Guardians Of The Galaxy, but I'm simply going to say he plays Kaulder in The Last Witch Hunter like Kojak meets Hellboy, and in the future he's more likely to be cast as the Martian Manhunter, than as Ernest Worthing opposite Dame Judi Dench's Lady Bracknell.

The film begins with a group of bearded warriors in furs trekking across a frozen landscape. They come to a huge tree, the lair of the Witch Queen (Julie Engelbrecht) who has laid humanity to waste with a plague. A battle ensues and Kaulder stabs the Queen to the heart with a flaming sword, in her death-throes she thrusts her clawed hand into his own heart and curses him with eternal life.

In our present day, some 800 years later, we are told by Michael Caine in voice-over that humans and witches live together in truce, although peace is dependent upon policing that status quo. Caine plays the 36th Dolan of the Axe and Cross, the organisation that is humanity's bulwark against the witches, and Kaulder's handler and chronicler of his history who is about to retire. Kaulder meets with the 37th Dolan (Elijah Wood) whom he saved from witches when the Dolan was still a child.

Later, Kaulder hears that the 36th Dolan has died in his sleep, but on investigation discovers he has been cursed after torture, but not before he could leave a message for Kaulder that a clue to his assailant's purpose lies hidden in Kaulder's memories.

Pursuing a memory-potion at a witches' bar run by Chloe (Rose Leslie, Game Of Thrones), Kaulder is attacked by Belial (Olafur Darri Olafsson) a powerful witch. Belial destroys the bar but Kaulder and Chloe escape.

After another abortive attempt to obtain a memory-potion, Chloe rescues Kaulder, revealing in the process that she is a Dream Walker and is able to enter a subject's memories. With Chloe's help Kaulder discovers that when he defeated the Witch Queen, the first Dolan preserved her living heart, as to destroy it would have killed Kaulder. The Axe and Cross needed Kaulder as a living weapon against the witches. Belial now has the heart and uses it to revive the Queen, who launches another plague to destroy humanity.

When the Witch Queen cursed Kaulder with immortality it seemed a bit of a missed opportunity, given that she allowed him to carry on for 800 years in the hale and hearty buff physique of a centuries old witch-killer, rather than the increasingly decrepit figure Robert Stephens' immortal became in The Asphyx (1972). However, Kaulder's immortality has kept the Witch Queen's heart beating, as she doesn't really explain when she thrusts her clawed hand into his own heart and seemingly draws energy from it. Is Kaulder rendered mortal at this point? The Witch Queen seems to suggest as much, but Kaulder still appears to have his Wolverine-patent quick-healing power. So much muddle then, but that, and the often mumbled dialogue doesn't really detract from a reasonable couple of hours.

There seems to be an indication that the makers hoped to spin this off into another franchise, but honestly, you've killed the Queen of Witches, where do you go from there? This film isn't great, but it isn't terrible and there are two good jokes, one where an accused witch compares the Witches' Council to an 1980s' band, and later when Michael Caine kills one of the Witch Queen's plague-flies with his journal and says you couldn't do that with an iPad. I didn't hate this film but it was nothing special.

In a big array of extras, there is a commentary by the director; the usual making-of featurette; four animated shorts narrated by Caine setting out the history of human/ witch conflict, and the origins of the Axe and Cross; deleted scenes; and something called a sizzle reel, scenes from the film to a version of the Rolling Stones' Paint It Black performed by Ciara.

The Last Witch Hunter

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