The Last Witch Hunter has a lot of flaws: its plodding pace, its lazy direction, its muddled story, its hopelessly expository dialogue. But the most glaring flaw of all is even more basic than any of that: There’s not nearly enough witch hunting.
The movie stars Vin Diesel as Kaulder, an immortal badass who for 800 years has enforced a truce between humans and witches at the behest of a shadowy group known as the Axe and Cross. But after the opening scene, in which Kaulder — elaborately bearded and clad in macho furry armor, like a Brooklyn bartender who joined the Night’s Watch — leads a band of ancient warriors into a witch’s den to kill off a witch queen, there’s disappointingly little actual witch hunting.
Following the brief introductory sequence, the movie flashes forward to the present, where Kaulder, now a clean-shaven immortal who favors sleek city coats and black button-downs with ridiculously oversize collars, spends his days tracking down witches who’ve broken the truce and delivering them to an organization called the Witch Council, which delivers its judgment and then locks them away in an underground dungeon.
Until the last-minute finale, Kaulder does very little that can be legitimately described as witch hunting. Instead, he’s more like a witch detective or, worse, a witch parole officer, patrolling known witch hangouts and dutifully checking in to see that the witches under his supervision are following the law, and then hauling them in to be imprisoned by the judicial system when they don’t.
Kaulder even acknowledges this sad reality in a quiet moment of reflection at the end of the second act, glumly sighing to a colleague, "We don’t destroy witches anymore. We incarcerate them."
That’s a bummer, because more witch hunting and witch destroying is exactly what a movie like this needs. The Last Witch Hunter was never going to be a great movie, but there’s no reason for it to be a terrible one. The underlying problem is that it doesn’t seem to understand the inherent appeal of its own concept.
The Last Witch Hunter had the potential to be a great genre film
With a reported production budget of about $90 million, The Last Witch Hunter is a reasonably expensive film, but it’s still considerably less expensive than an average studio tentpole release. At its heart, it’s really just a genre B-movie, with smaller, simpler ambitions than most effects-driven summer blockbusters. And what almost always distinguishes the best of these sorts of films from low-rent genre junk is a clear, compelling concept — and the ability to both understand that concept’s appeal and then deliver on it.
There are few better examples of this than director John Carpenter’s string of B-movie classics during the 1980s — Escape From New York, The Thing, and They Live. (Despite its considerable charms, Big Trouble in Little China is ultimately a little too hokey for its own good.)
Carpenter wasn’t making ultra-cheap exploitation films, but he didn’t exactly have unlimited funds, either. Escape From New York, for example, boasted a complex production design and a number of practical special effects, but it was made for just $6 million. Return of the Jedi, in contrast, cost $32 million to make just two years later.
But Carpenter made his modestly budgeted films work by focusing relentlessly on their core concepts. Right from the start, you know exactly what you’re going to get from Escape: After a national crime spike, Manhattan has been walled off and transformed into a futuristic prison. The president’s plane crashes in the city. And badass, eye-patch-wearing convict Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell, who was very much the Vin Diesel of the 1980s) is sent in to retrieve him. The movie wastes no time with anything extraneous. Plissken seems to have a backstory — people keep saying they heard he was dead — but it’s never developed because it doesn’t need to be. He enters New York, searches for the president, then tries to get out. That’s it.
The same efficient focus can be found in Carpenter’s follow-ups, The Thing, a gory, brilliantly tense monster movie set in an Antarctic research outpost, and They Live, a sly, brutal media satire about a man (pro wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper) who finds glasses that allow him to see the true faces of the aliens who actually run the world. In both films, Carpenter sets up the basic idea in the first few minutes, then follows it relentlessly to its conclusion.
Carpenter’s best films do this better than most, but they’re not the only successful examples: Think of James Cameron’s original Terminator, another concept-driven, relatively inexpensive science fiction film from the same period, or George Miller’s first Mad Max sequel, The Road Warrior. (The early '80s were a great period for these sorts of movies.)
There’s a memorable conceptual clarity to both of these films, a simplicity and directness that drives the action and lets the audience know exactly what to expect. It helps that they also have titles that perfectly articulate the concept: The Terminator features an awful lot of terminating; The Road Warrior is jam packed with spectacular vehicular combat.
Basically, a good genre movie knows what it’s about, then sticks to it.
The Last Witch Hunter doesn't understand its own concept
The Last Witch Hunter is a terrible movie because it has no idea what it’s about. The underlying concept is fine. But it doesn’t know what to do with it — and doesn’t even seem to know why it’s interesting in the first place.
After the movie flashes forward to the present, it quickly gets bogged down with incomprehensible fantasy lore. Kaulder spends a lot of time explaining various magical systems and rules to the various supporting characters, but it mostly sounds like gobbledygook, and rarely adds useful information. "Max is a 14th-level warlock," is a real line of dialogue from the movie, but not one that helps viewers understand anything they need to know; there’s never any additional reference to a warlock leveling system, nor any sense of what it means to be level 14 versus, say, level five or level 42.
The script even seems to acknowledge how overly dependent it is on this sort of lame mystical technobabble. After one particularly impenetrable exchange with another magical being involving the phrase "muldering crabapples," Kaulder’s assistant, the 37th Dolan — which, in yet another bit of needless lore, is just a fancy word for sidekick — asks, sheepishly, "So all that made sense to you?" At least somebody’s asking the question.
Better genre films do their world building without excessively explaining it. In The Road Warrior, for example, Max spends very little time explaining the particular social rules and personal dynamics of the wasteland he inhabits. He just goes about his business, and we, in the audience, learn all we need to know from what he does. The concept is there to drive the action; it doesn’t need extended footnotes in the dialogue.
The Last Witch Hunter often seems far more interested in touring and explaining the world it built than in getting to what we presumably came to see — some actual witch hunting. The movie kicks off when Kaulder’s previous assistant, the 36th Dolan (Michael Caine, who’s too good for this role) is murdered. This should set Kaulder, the immortal warrior, blazing down the path toward bloody revenge; instead, it turns into a kind of mystery, with Kaulder scouring New York for magical clues like a magical detective.
Only in the final act does Kaulder decide to take his supposedly famous sword, Witchslayer, out of his armor closet (teased in the first act, but otherwise bizarrely unused) and hunt down a witch. And even this only occurs in the final few minutes. Granted, when Kaulder finally uses a magical potion to light his sword on fire and battle it out with a witch queen in dungeon, it’s not the greatest scene. But it’s the only moment in the movie that really even attempts to deliver on its core concept.
Vin Diesel used to make great genre films
The Last Witch Hunter is such a disappointment in part because much of Diesel’s appeal is his ability to carry this type of movie. These days he’s known more for his leading role in the Fast & Furious franchise, an international box office megahit with increasingly broad appeal and giant budgets and ambitions to match.
But Diesel got his start in relatively more modest projects like XXX and Pitch Black. Indeed, Pitch Black — a tough, brutal sci-fi action film that stars Diesel as a man who can see in the dark on a planet that is swarmed with alien creatures when it enters extended nightfall — is a nearly perfect example of a modern-day genre B-movie. It knows its appeal — Vin Diesel fights aliens in the darkness — and delivers accordingly. So, for that matter, is the original Fast and the Furious, which, before exploding into a global sensation, was just a simple movie about cars, cops, and criminals — Point Break with street racing.
Every movie is in some sense a promise to its audience. Some are big and bold, others more modest and direct. Either way, the movie’s job is to make its promise clear and then deliver. The Last Witch Hunter has no idea what its promise is — and thus totally fails to live up to it.