There shouldn’t be any surprises within ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER. The film is either won or lost largely based on its name. So as an audience member, you can quickly judge whether you will balk at the idea of a young Abraham Lincoln fighting vampires with a silver-edged axe. The real grey area is how much of that time spent will live up to what you have in mind. Director Timur Bekmambetov is known for striking visuals and pushing the limits of what you can comprehend. He certainly does both in this film, with quick cuts around blurred action sequences and a set piece that follows Abraham and his vampire prey jumping from horse to horse during a stampede. Truly, one can’t make that kind of stuff up. Unless you’re Bekmambetov, I guess.
Writer Seth Grahame-Smith has made his mark on this world by colliding the monsters with public domain novels. His breakout hit, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, showed that there was an allure to the mishmash of genres. He followed that up with Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter and he adapted his own work to the screen for Bekmambetov to work through. Some minor elements are given up to keep the film flowing and in one central area, but overall there seems to be little lost. The central theme revolves around a young Abraham witnessing the murder of his mother by a vampire named Jack Barts (Martin Csokas). That sets him up to seek revenge, and as an adult (played by Benjamin Walker) he realizes that killing a vampire isn’t quite so easy. With the help of the mysterious vampire hunter Henry (Dominic Cooper), he is shown their weaknesses and strengths and how to ultimately destroy them.
This satiates Abraham for a while as he wages war against individual vampires in a small town. There, he meets William Johnson (Anthony Mackie), Abraham’s boyhood friend that reminds him vampirism is nothing compared to the horrors mankind commits against itself. He also meets Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and the two quickly find themselves enamored with the other. The courtship, at times, feels clunky and the dialogue truly suffers. There’s an, “I thought you were honest, Abe” moment thrown in during a picnic that is truly eye-rolling. There is also the head vampire, Adam (Rufus Sewell), who takes a personal interest in making sure Abraham quits killing his underlings.This brings danger to Abe, his family, and friends and strengthens his resolve that these creatures cannot be allowed to live.
The action is the real highlight throughout the film, but even it is sometimes uneven. The use of the axe by Abe is clever and looks great on the big screen. Every time he hacks down a vamp there is a satisfying gush of black blood and Timur frequently slows down the motion to show things in all its glory. There are also moments that he goes above and beyond himself, and the stampede set-piece I mentioned earlier is one of those sequences. The entire thing feels hokey and hard to follow. There is a lack of a steady angle on the action as they jump around on the horses. There’s also a haze of dust kicked up to make sure you a thoroughly confused. What might have been something grand to witness in 3D is instead washed out and unsatisfying. I found myself wanting the sequence to end, but Bekmambetov was not so merciful.
There is one bright spot, and that is one of the final set-pieces on a train. There are plumes of smoke blocking your field of vision and every now and then a vampire bursts through. This is one of the rare moments where I remembered how 3D can be both gimmicky yet thoroughly effective. You weren’t dodging them, but you certainly could tell they were coming forward with great depth behind them. I just wish this level of action was replicated throughout the film. Quick cuts mar many close-quarters combat scenes. Timur and Grahame-Smith have fun with the rules, especially sequences where vamps become invisible. To combat this, Abe is taught to throw out some kind of floating rice (perhaps it’s really big plumes of dust that just look like rice?). The result is an interesting visual where you see a human form lurching through the rice-dust.
Timur Bekmambetov has delivered a film that feels relatively even-keeled despite the various missteps. Frequent use of trendy quick-cuts hamper many action scenes, and sometimes the rules and action are simply hard to follow. Hokey dialogue piles onto the problems, but the tone is never under question. No one was laughing at inappropriate times and you are not surprised or shocked by the violence on display. Meanwhile, the acting is simply adequate. You might have difficulty pointing to anyone that truly stood out during the film. Even Walker as Abe simply floats about. He carries the film, sure, but is this a star-vehicle for him? Doubtful. There are moments that shine, but they are simply too few and far between to leave a lasting impact. The shame isn’t that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a decent action film, it’s that it feels like that’s all it was aiming for.