The opening scene of The Last Witch Hunter made me think.
It made me think ‘God, those Lord of the Rings films really were pretty good.’
Some of the opening images, sweeping shots of magnificent vistas, aren’t just reminiscent of the Tolkein-based trilogy they are almost ripping it off. And the same goes for the way in which the intrepid band of heroes-on-a-quest are filmed in this opening scene. It’s almost like they were hobbits, if hobbits were actually intimidating. And this is all before Elijah Wood has appeared on screen.
In The Last Witch Hunter we move between the present in the USA and a Black-death-era Europe, so the tone isn’t always blatantly Peter Jackson-esque. Unsurprisingly the Middle Earth… let’s be polite and call them homages, are largely left for the sections set in the Middle Ages.
During a contemporary-set point in the film we see Vin Diesel’s character, Kaulder, finding out that in order to alter his perception and get insight into how the world really is he has to swallow the red pill. Later, to get information he visits the business headquarters of some rich, attractive, laconic, treacherous, European people who immediately call to mind the Merovingians from the Matrix trilogy, complete with their own mind-altering substances.
Combine that with some ‘when are we in the real world and when are we in a dream?’ sleight-of-hand in the style of Inception and you have this film in its entirety. Anything that you find yourself enjoying about this film you will have already experienced if you saw those other films.
But The Last Witch Hunter isn’t marketing itself as the most original film ever. And if you are going to be derivative you could do a lot worse than choose the Lord of the Rings, Matrix and Inception movies for your base material.
Allow me to be clear: at no point does this film come close to the standards set by the films it impersonates.
But it does ok.
It has been built better than it needed to be; the plot works and can hold your attention, visually there is a lot to appreciate, the script occasionally feels forced but exposition is succinct and most of the jokes work.
For me the greatest pleasure was watching the performances: Michael Caine shows why he has such durability, Rose Leslie demonstrates range and believability with a character who has to flip between emotions rapidly and Elijah Wood uses an intriguingly understated performance to bring a great watchability to a role that could have been simply boring.
And Vin Diesel doesn’t let the side down either.
Admittedly that surprised me; I haven’t seen him in many films and I didn’t expect great things here. However the filmmakers were clearly comfortable giving him multiple scenes with Caine, Leslie and Wood and he wasn’t acted off the screen in any of them.
He is a muscly guy and he plays the role of muscly characters. There must be a lot of muscly guys who wouldn’t turn their noses up at these jobs, but he gets picked. Why? Of all the muscly guys going for all the muscly roles of all the muscly characters in all of the big Hollywood films (I am led to believe that this is not a niche role) he is one who can deliver the dialogue effectively. I even almost didn’t titter when he had to utter the line: “There’s only one way to remember my death: Magic!”
Vin Diesel isn’t going to be understudying Benedict Cumberbatch at The National anytime soon but, just as not every actor is a Cumberbatch, not every role is a Hamlet.
Likewise, not all films are great like Citizen Kane, and not all films are dreadful like Plan 9 from Outer Space. Some are in the middle, some are just ok. And The Last Witch Hunter is better than ok, it’s better than it needed to be.