At its core, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter delivers on the promises of the title – there is hunting (and gory killing) of the undead by the 16th, and many say greatest, president of the United States.
But it could have done so much more. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted, Day Watch, Night Watch), the film struggles with radical shifts between attempts to talk about the secret life of an important man while also encouraging the audience to have fun when it comes to kicking vampire butt.
Based on the 2010 Seth Grahame-Smith book of the same, the film follows Abe (Benjamin Walker) as a younger, then older, man who studies under the tutelage of self-loathing vampire Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper) to vanquish the undead. What begins as a Bruce Wayne-esque mission of angry vengeance against a particular vamp who murdered his mother, Abe goes on to become the Dark Knight politician fighting a legion of the bloodsuckers that use slaves as a convenient food source, and have eyes on ruling the entire country as their own U.S. of V. (Read more after the jump...)
The fangers are led by Adam (Rufus Sewell), a five thousand year-old Southern gentleman. They possess the ability to vanish, as well as having super strength and speed, and can be in the daylight as long they have some protective eyewear. They’re appearance ranges from pale to standard fangy to grotesque Nosferatu-meets-ugly-stick mutations. The only thing that can stop them is silver (although that “rule” is abandoned frequently) and Abe dispatches them with a specially-tipped ax. Meanwhile, Abe’s justice league comprises Henry, freed slave Will Johnson (Anthony Mackie), Josh Speed (Jimmi Simpson), and his own eventual wife Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). They are also apparently the only ones running the entire country.
The movie has moments of fun, but incredibly silly, stylized action. The fight sequence that takes place on, and during, a stampede is actually quite inventive. Sure, it looks ridiculous – and computer generated enough not to upset animal lovers – but it’s different. The other big action scenes are also cheesy fun; it’s admittedly cool seeing bad ass Abe making his ax dance in his hands as he hacks through heads and limbs, or performing a battle ballet on the top of a train.
But there’s not enough of this silly escapism to carry the entire flick. The story relies too much on the gimmick instead of focusing on a fully-realized plot; it also significantly falters during the downtime when there isn’t slaying taking place. In the opening sequence, Lincoln reads from his own omnipresent journal that history “prefers legends to men,” and the movie can’t decide which to focus on so it does neither quite effectively. As such, Benjamin Walker doesn’t get much opportunity to perform as more than a very good Lincoln impersonator.
Since everyone already has certain preconceived notions about Lincoln, it would have been a treat to see those upended by a character who has a public persona but really comes to life when he’s killing monsters. To return to the earlier Batman comparison, it’s similar to how Bruce Wayne is really the mask for the Caped Crusader. Conversely, there could have been a darker approach that reveals how the many adversities Lincoln faced in his factual life were connected to these sinister forces, and how they motivated the serious man. Mashing up real history with clever embellishments was something that Grahame-Smith did so well with his book, but is unfortunately abandoned by the author in his screenplay for the movie.
Instead of a plot about a president who sought justice for slaves while seeking to unite a broken nation – and did this while fighting a secret enemy with larger aims - Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter only offers a guy who is going to war with the Vampire South. And for a man (and legend) that we’ve heard so much about, the movie leaves us not thinking much at all about him as a character.