Secretly a Hell of a Lot of Fun — “The Last Witch Hunter”

Vin Diesel in The Last Witch Hunter

This weekend saw the wide release of a movie about a strange cult threatening the world. They worship an unnatural god who thinks humans are here only to serve. But enough about Apple users and “Steve Jobs.” Instead, let’s talk about a movie based on Vin Diesel’s Dungeons & Dragons character: “The Last Witch Hunter.”

The film’s opening is visually stunning. We find Kaulder (Diesel) and his band of medieval warriors launching a last-ditch assault on the fortress of the evil Witch Queen. This fortress is a vast tree that stretches across the entire horizon, and the warriors are faced with strange magics and shapeshifting beasts once inside. From the beginning, “Witch Hunter” lets you know it’s not quite playing by the same rules as other action movies.

Kaulder achieves his goal but is cursed with immortality in doing so. Fast-forward 800 years to present day, and he’s working as the enforcer to a secret alliance between the Catholic Church and the Witch Council. He helps keep the balance between magic users and humans.

The world-building at play here is very good. The film takes time to explain things, but the real standout here is the way magical battles incorporate outlandish spells. Most of the “Harry Potter” series is better overall, but too often that franchise devolved magic battles into faux gun fights. Wizards just shot sparks at each other as if they’d whipped revolvers out at a saloon. It hardly felt powerful.

Last Witch Hunter's Witch Queen

If witches and wizards are so powerful, they should be calling tree limbs out of the ground, teleporting, partitioning rooms into different parts of time, turning into swarms of flies at the drop of a hat, and trying to trap each other within dreams and memories mid-battle. “Witch Hunter” gets this very right. It’s one of the only films I’ve seen treat magic this ambitiously. It also does a stellar job of making this all accessible without slowing down the pace of a fight. For this alone, it’s worth the watch.

The exceptional makeup design by Justin Raleigh, Danielle Noe, and their crew is also worth mentioning. The Witch Queen is a fantastic practical creature design and, somehow, Vin Diesel doesn’t look ridiculous as a Viking. Well, he looks ridiculous, but in just the right way. Director Breck Eisner also manages to get the practical special effects and the CGI visual effects together on the same page. It all feels part of a world. The two are blended very well.

The film’s other elements are here and there. The set design is occasionally visionary, occasionally ordinary. The costuming contains personal detail, but is often ill-advised in concept. There’s a single, needless line of voice-over narration when the film’s already 20 minutes old. That narration never comes back. Michael Caine is completely wasted in his role as a priest who advises Kaulder.

Diesel himself is uneven at best. His anger only knows one level, and that’s shouting. There are scenes where Kaulder can threaten a witch by his very presence, essentially playing good cop while his 800-year old reputation plays bad cop. He’s charming and funny during these moments. There are other scenes in which Kaulder just resorts to yelling at someone. These don’t fit, and make the character seem much too immature for his centuries-old age.

Last Witch Hunter Vin Diesel and Rose Leslie

It’s up to Rose Leslie and Elijah Wood to hold the scenes down around Diesel. Despite her youth, Leslie’s a veteran of costume fare, via “Game of Thrones” and “Downton Abbey.” As the witch Chloe, who grudgingly allies with Kaulder, she creates a character we’re able to invest in more than Diesel’s. Wood gets limited screen-time, but riffs off of Diesel when he gets the chance. As a young priest charged with recording Kaulder’s history, he manages to create the kind of quirky character he’s known for outside of “Lord of the Rings.”

Roger Ebert often wrote that a movie needs to be judged on whether it accomplishes its own goals. “Witch Hunter” isn’t trying to be anything earth-shattering. It’s just trying to be fun, and you know what? It is. If it were part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it would be smack dab in the middle in terms of quality. It’s a satisfying film with some very vibrant moments and some disappointing ones.

If you liked “Blade” or “Constantine” and you’re looking for similarly dark superhero-styled fare, “Last Witch Hunter” is for you. Vin Diesel isn’t as dynamic as Wesley Snipes or self-aware as Keanu Reeves, but he gets the job done. The closest comparison to “Witch Hunter” may be “John Wick.” Although the two are in completely separate genres, they share a similar ability for hinting at deeper worlds beneath a glossy presentation. They also share a creative knack for presenting action in ways we haven’t seen before. They do both lose some steam by the end via formulaic climaxes.

“The Last Witch Hunter” is getting slammed by many critics, but it doesn’t really deserve it. As a viewer, trust your gut on this one. If the concept or actors intrigue you, go see it. If you watch the trailer and the visuals impress you, the rest of the film is just as inventive. If you think this kind of B-movie sounds ridiculous, this won’t do anything to change your opinion. There are certainly far better (“Sicario”) and more visually creative (“Crimson Peak”) movies in the theater right now.

Does it Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.

1. Does “The Last Witch Hunter” have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Rose Leslie plays Chloe. Rena Owen plays Glaeser, the leader of the Witch Council. Julie Engelbrecht plays the Witch Queen. Bex Taylor-Klaus plays a witch Diesel helps on a plane, Bronwyn. Dawn Olivieri plays the tricky Danique. Lotte Verbeek plays Kaulder’s wife Helena. Sloane Coombs plays Kaulder’s daughter Elizabeth.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Briefly.

3. About something other than a man?

Yes.

The number of speaking roles for women is about on par with the number of roles for men, especially considering that most of the incidental male roles take place in just a pair of scenes in the past. I’d say there’s more room for “Witch Hunter” to make these roles more consequential, but that’s true of pretty much every character.

Given that everything’s so Diesel-related, and that there are almost no scenes requiring more than one person to interact with him at a time, I’d say the movie sits on a fine line when it comes to the spirit of the Bechdel-Wallace Test. It technically passes, though only in the briefest moments when Chloe threatens Danique or is threatened by the Witch Queen. Spiritually, it’s not a sale. Chloe is a strong character, and Leslie gives her an admirable mix of courage and gumption. She lacks Kaulder’s skill in battle, but that doesn’t exactly stop her from jumping in and doing what she can. The film makes some conscious effort to avoid making her a romantic interest, an ingenue, or a pet. There’s a bit of complexity to her back story, and Kaulder treats her as an ally instead of a damsel.

The core group is Diesel, Leslie, Wood, and Caine. Leslie doesn’t enter into the fray until at least a third of the way through the film, so you can see how opportunities for women to share scenes are further limited.

Overall, there’s some modest success with Chloe as a character who doesn’t succumb to the normal pitfalls of women sidekicks in films like this. There are also a number of speaking roles for women, though many are brief or contained to a single scene. “Witch Hunter” makes some effort, but could have made much more.

Where did we find our awesome images? The feature of the burning tree is from Comic Book Resources. Viking Vin Diesel up top is from Screen Rant. The Witch Queen is from Bloody-Disgusting, as is the image of Diesel and Leslie facing camera.

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