Tag Archives: Vin Diesel

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?


3. About something other than a man?


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.

Over on AC: “Furious 7” is Insane, Important for Minorities, Terrible for Feminism

I put Furious 7 through the ringer in this review. While it’s a tremendous opportunity for many to see heroes that aren’t normally represented on film, it’s also obsessed with the male gaze and objectifying women. I love this film for its action, humor, and especially for how it chooses to bare its soul and cope with Paul Walker’s death, but it has to be taken in context. Read more over on Article Cats:

“Furious 7” is Insane, Important for Minorities, Terrible for Feminism

– Gabe

10 Things I Thought While (Re)Watching “The Chronicles of Riddick”

How You Doin'

by Gabe Valdez

1. Let’s be completely honest here: The entire point of this film is Karl Urban’s make-up and hair.

2. I like hearing Judi Dench’s voice from a different room and not being able to tell whether she’s chewing out Pierce Brosnan in Bond or Vin Diesel in Chronicles. Someone needs to get a soundboard of her best castigations together stat.

3. Thandie Newton’s good in this. Really good. She alternates between dramatic delivery and chewing the scenery, but it’s rare we see a film giving a woman the leeway to ham it up so villainously.

Chronicles of Riddick 1

4. Alexa Davalos has had a very unlucky career. I remember first taking note of her as a briefly recurring character on Angel. She stole the two episodes in which she appeared. Chronicles failed to take off and her next big break wasn’t until the Clash of the Titans remake. She was the female lead, but the studio stepped in and forced director Louis Letterier to reshoot huge chunks of the film. She was all but cut out, and replaced as the love interest in an expanded role for Gemma Arterton’s character, which is weird since Arterton played the hero’s half-sister. Whatever, Hollywood logic. Davalos later had a lead in Mob City, which shot 6 episodes before cancellation.

Chronicles of Riddick lead

5. Chronicles is the definition of fulfilling the first rule of the Bechdel Test and failing the last two – there are multiple female characters, but they don’t speak to each other. The women each exert a certain amount of power over their male counterpart, which makes them read as strong, but in terms of story, they’re really only there as motivators to help the men get to new plot points – Dench as oracle to Colm Feore’s villain, Newton as the Lady Macbeth to Urban, and Davalos as the damsel in distress to Diesel’s heroic machismo. I have a very hard time saying whether they’re strong women – they shoot, kill, and exert political power – or if their roles are wasted – they disappear every time a man makes a new story decision. The truth lies in the middle, I think. You can give the movie credit for some decisions and hold it accountable for others.

6. This has pretty reasonable fight choreography, but it’s edited far too aggressively. I’ve always liked director David Twohy’s brashness when it comes to action. You’re expecting a gritty fight? Maybe the music cuts out and it’s just grunts and dirt and sweat for a few minutes? Not Twohy’s style: let’s drop the sound, pump up the orchestra, and cut it like some sort of ballet. It doesn’t always work – in fact, it doesn’t often work – but damn, if it doesn’t keep you glued to see what crazy scene experiment he’s going to try next.

7. The production design by Holger Goss here is stellar, but I think much of the real input may have come from art director Kevin Ishioka, whose resume in the same position includes Avatar, TRON: Legacy, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Oblivion (perhaps the single most overlooked accomplishment in art direction of the past few years). In fact, there are a lot of technical elements that stand out as truly superior. Mark W. Mansbridge has worked with Ishioka often since then and Sandra Tanaka moved on to an art direct on Pacific Rim. Peter Lando was set decorator and he later moved onto the Dark Knight trilogy. The make-up department included a number of luminaries, including Ve Neill (who won Oscars for makeup in Beetlejuice, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Ed Wood, in addition to designing the creature makeup in the Pirates of the Caribbean series and appearing as a judge in SyFy’s wonderful makeup design competition Face/Off). No one will remember Chronicles this way because of other failings, but the technical side of this movie boasted a dream team of designers.

Oh Linus

8. I wish Linus Roache had appeared like this more often during his stint as an ADA on Law & Order.

9. Back to Karl Urban for a second. Hasn’t the man proven he should be given a franchise of his own? Doom, Riddick, Dredd, Star Trek, Almost Human? They’re not all good…well, the last four are to varying degrees, but he’s very good in all of them. Hell, throw the rest of the baby Star Trek cast out and just follow Urban. Dr. Leonard McCoy’s Adventures in Space. I’d watch that. I’d buy the lunchboxes or whatever. Just do it. I’m really not asking that much. Someone give Karl Urban a job. Feed Karl Urban.

Chronicles of Riddick 2

10. That’s a damn good sci-fi climax, both in terms of the logic of the end fight, and in terms of setting up for something truly different for a sequel. It’s a shame then that follow-up Riddick retcons every single plot point in Chronicles in its first few minutes. (Go read Russ Schwartz’s perfect review of Riddick.) They could have made The Cult of Riddick or The Conquests of Riddick or Empire of Riddick, or just ripped off Hercules and gone with Riddick in the Underverse, which would’ve been the most obvious since everyone in Chronicles brings up the Underverse every five minutes and by the time the credits roll, we still have no clue what it is. Instead, we got Riddick Sexually Harasses Katee Sackhoff for Two Hours.

On DVD: Future Misogynistic — The Chronic Lulls of “Riddick”

 Riddick 2

Guest Review by Russ Schwartz

You know, I kind of loved Riddick, Vin Diesel’s antisocial antihero whose charisma eclipsed the middling sci-fi flick Pitch Black in 2000. His appeal convinced writer/director David Twohy to expand the Riddick-verse with 2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick, which re-imagined the character as a galactic Conan the Barbarian inhabiting a pulpy patchwork of sci-fi and fantasy themes. The result was unfocused, but I applauded the effort for going its own grunge-rock way; it seemed fitting to end with Riddick being declared king of an insane warrior civilization.

So I was on Riddick’s side when Riddick began, and stayed there a good twenty minutes. An interesting opening sequence shows an injured Riddick struggling to survive an alien wasteland, having been betrayed and left to die. Diesel carries it nicely, accompanied by some impressive monster effects. The sequence hints at a decent movie. Unfortunately for us, he is soon beset by two factions of mercenaries, who spend a long time shouting at each other. There is some plot, some macho posturing, and eventually the realization that the mercs are the hunted, not the hunters. This is meant to switch Riddick’s role from hero to monster-in-the-dark, but instead, the story falls flat and never recovers, and no amount of “sweet kill, dude” moments can help that.

Rather than have the mercs discuss, oh, say, their plans or motivations, a distressing amount of their conversation centers on who the lone female merc, Dahl (Katee Sackhoff), will or won’t sleep with. She’s strong enough to beat down anyone who pushes the talk to action, but – news flash – this doesn’t mean she’s immune to being objectified by the movie itself, as shown in the obligatory shower scene. Apart from being obvious, offensive “fan service,” its inclusion feels tired, even in a film full of used scenes. The role is a waste of Sackhoff, who gave us one of the best heroines in the genre with her complex, troubled Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica.

Riddick 3

Riddick becomes a retread of Pitch Black with rain-monsters instead of dark-monsters and the only interesting thread is that of Boss Johns (Matt Nable). Johns, whose name will tell fans that he has unfinished business with Riddick, is the only character to pursue a conversation with the target, finally giving us a taste of the gravelly, nihilistic charm that launched the series. Diesel is fun to watch, but he has nowhere to take the character after the opening scenes. It’s a mystery why the survivors love him at the end.

The story’s momentum and coherence is sacrificed for small gains. In one case, to confuse the audience long enough for Riddick to play a trick on the mercs, the film abandons a scene depicting an attempted rape and then all but ignores the outcome. At another moment, a merc reveals that he knows something about the monsters – but then, why hasn’t he said anything yet, and why is he saying it to the wrong person, and why is his information useless?

If monsters, mercs, a shower scene and gore are your thing, you can take or leave the connecting tissue. Even given that low standard, Riddick fails because it gets boring and stays that way. For all its supposed fan service, Riddick might lose a lot of Riddick fans.

Despite what its advertising campaign and the previous two films might make you think, Riddick is not a film to see with the kids. The R rating is deserved for its violence, language, and way more sexual content than a film like this needs.

Riddick 1