Confession: I like nerdy Vin Diesel. I have almost no patience for tireless self-promoter Vin Diesel, or the Vin Diesel who wants to be the non-stop, badass of the Fast and Furious movies (films that succeed the more they’ve become about the team rather than his character). But I like the nerdy Vin Diesel who tried to make Pitch Black, a cool little sci-fi flick, into a mythology whose greatest sin was overreach, or the one who’s a self-professed Dungeons and Dragons nerd.
This nerdy side of Diesel gets a vanity picture with Breck Eisner’s The Last Witch Hunter, and watching Diesel cast spells and talk about dark magic is a fairly enjoyable time. Unfortunately, the movie indulges its simple premise for far too long, and comes out with an unsatisfying climax that has a predictable and unnecessary twist that also shortchanges the other characters.
The movie begins 800 years ago when Kaulder (Diesel) and a group of fellow warriors go to the Witch Queen’s (Julie Engelbrecht) lair to kill her and stop the black plague. Kaulder manages to impale the Witch Queen, but she curses him with immortality. Cut to the present day, and Kaulder is the “weapon” of the Axe and Cross, a secret sect of the Catholic Church devoted to stopping witches, who are defined as humans with magic in their blood. Kaulder prefers to handle matters peacefully when possible, but when his friend Dolan the 36th (Michael Caine) is attacked, an investigation reveals that the Witch Queen is trying to return.
After the movie powers through a rough opening (the action inside of the Witch Queen’s lair is borderline incomprehensible) that also includes Kaulder mansplaining witchcraft to a teenage female witch on an airplane, the story starts to pick up and flesh out the details of Kaulder’s world. At its best moments, Last Witch Hunter recalls the unabashedly dark magic details of Constantine and the world building of John Wick. There’s refreshing confidence on display that says the audience will either come on board with a character casting spells and walking through a secret world, or they won’t. It’s all to serve Diesel’s ego anyway, but I’d much rather the payoff from the Fast & Furious movies be something like Last Witch Hunter than another xXx movie.
To its credit, the movie is also aware that it doesn’t want to equate witches with womanhood, and although it can be a bit clumsy in how it handles gender roles, at least it tries to give the love interest character, Chloe (Rose Leslie), her own desires even if it ultimately only serves to help Kaulder’s mission. We get a brief flash of the film at its best when its Kaulder, Chloe, and Dolan the 37th (Elijah Wood) working to undercover the Witch Queen’s plan because it’s a strong team dynamic of ancient and modern (Dolan works on a computer) and the hunter, the witch, and the human.
Unfortunately, this is a minor scene, and by the time the movie finally kicks into its third act, it feels like it should already be over. The twists have been too telegraphed and they pull away from the film’s stronger aspects, which isn’t plotting, but world building and character details. I want to see a movie where Vin Diesel is casting spells against a warlock because that feels like Diesel playing honestly to his interests than just another tough guy role.
Diesel, the tireless self-promoter, will undoubtedly want more Witch Hunter movies, and this one allows for more adventures, but it lacks the right mix for everything it wants to do. There’s a bit of magic about it, but not enough to have us asking for more Kaulder.