The opening minutes of The Last Witch Hunter play out like the final act of a classic fantasy story. A squad of Viking-era witch hunters storm the hideout of a witch queen and her coven, they make epic speeches before rushing into battle, and they yell and fight in a swarm of fire and magic. Had there been 90-minutes of film leading up to that point, it probably would have been one of the more unique entries in Vin Diesel’s filmography. Unfortunately for him, this battle is just the start of something far less compelling.
Diesel plays Kaulder, the eponymous last witch hunter who, upon defeating the witch queen, is cursed with immortality. Immortality may seem like a pretty great curse, but Kaulder wants to die fighting, and aims to go out killing the witch that killed his wife and child. The witch queen sees a chance for one last bit of mischief, ensuring that he doesn’t get his way.
Fast forward to today — seriously, the next scene takes place in an airplane — and Kaulder suddenly looks just like Diesel’s character in Fast & Furious, battling witches in modern times. The remainder of the film takes place in New York City, with Kaulder attempting to unravel a nonsensical conspiracy.
Kaulder has lived 800 years, yet outside of some brief flashbacks to his viking days, we don’t see any of his immortal life of battling witches in secret. Not until modern day NYC, quite possibly the most boring and generic time period the film could subject its audience to. We get hints that he rolled deep with the likes of Napoleon and Hitler, traveled the world backed by a secret order, and experienced more than any human ever has, yet his character isn’t more interesting or wise as a result.
The film goes out of its way to hide the most interesting elements of its backstory, and doesn’t do a better job of explaining what’s going on in the current plot either. In fact, it isn’t until the third act that characters start explaining any of their motives, and by then it’s too late. Sure, we get some relatively charming performances from Vin Diesel and Rose Leslie (Game of Thrones fans will remember her as Ygrette in the HBO show), but they’re acting against a blank slate. Other characters are squandered, or tossed aside until they’re needed for a lame last-second plot twist.
The Last Witch Hunter feels like the victim of Hollywood’s attempts to make everything slick, modern, and marketable. I can’t think of any other reason to lay the groundwork for this character only to dump him in a setting that’s interchangeable from Underworld, Resident Evil, or Blade. Would it have been so hard for audiences to grasp an unfamiliar setting amongst magic, witches, and Wolverine healing factor?
I think it might be time to start giving audiences of fantasy and sci-fi a little more credit than that. I for one am ready for an immortal Vin Diesel battling witches through the centuries, and I think at the very least it would have been a lot more fun than what we got.