How do you make a movie where Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, the man who freed the slaves, started a civil war that nearly ripped a very young country apart … and apparently had a thriving, secret side career as a vampire slayer? You do it as if your life depended on it being as convincing as possible, that’s how. Mind you, I’m not saying that director Timur Bekmambetov (“Wanted”) and writer Seth Grahame-Smith (who adapts the screenplay from his own novel) succeed in every respect utilizing this approach to the material, but I am saying, with a totally straight face (no, really), that “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is more entertaining and more believable than it has any right to be.
Oh, stop your groaning. “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is not a historical biography and you will never mistake it for one. You will (or at least, you should) quickly forget such silly notions once a young Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) starts whirling his trusty ax around onscreen like some wushu grand master. Or when he hops into slow-motion, “Matrix”-style battles with a horde of vampires that can vanish into thin air, defy sunlight, but seem to have quite a lot of trouble killing one guy with an ax. Of course, thanks to a quick training montage courtesy of seasoned vampire slayer Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), Abe is no ordinary fella with an ax. He’s a badass, vampire killin’ great fella with a silver-coated ax. Part of the film’s more amusing aspects is just how much damage Sturgess inflicts upon poor Abe. Give Walker credit — he is regularly beaten, tossed about, and generally finds himself ass-whupped throughout the movie.
“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” begins with Abe as a young boy, whose family (Abe gets his sense of right and decency from dear ol mum) runs afoul of an evil tycoon name Barts (Marton Csokas). One night, Barts pays a visit, killing Abe’s beloved mother, a murderous deed that the boy witnesses. Years later, a now-grown Abe returns home for vengeance. He fails, of course, not realizing that Barts is in fact a vampire. Fortunately for Abe, Sturgess is there to save his bacon, and from there, the duo embark on a quest to rid the world of vampires. The bloodsuckers are led by Adam (Rufus Sewell) and his sis Vadoma (Erin Wasson), the siblings living off the luxury of slaves in the South. They find Abe’s encroachment upon their perfect set-up to be most inconvenient. Abe, meanwhile, meets familiar figures from history — buddy Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson) and of course his future wife, an adventure seeking Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). He also reunites with freed slave Will (Anthony Mackie), who joins Abe’s battle against the undead.
Written in “diary” form and adapted by Seth Grahame-Smith, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” follows the President’s life pretty closely. Well, the parts without the vampires, I mean. That’s not to say the film shows a slavish adherence to the facts, but it does do a pretty good job of keeping things along the track that history tells us Lincoln’s life followed, from his entering politics, eventually becoming President, and finally, to the battle that broke the South’s back, Gettysburg. Of course, in Bekmambetov and Grahame-Smith’s version, Gettysburg’s bloody reputation had a little help from the vampire nation. In terms of vampire cinema, the movie doesn’t really divert too much from the usual tropes, though the vampires here can become completely invisible, and seem to have little aversion to sunlight. And judging by how easily Abe dispatches them, they’re apparently not all that tough to kill, which is too bad for them, but great for us.
From the director of “Wanted” and the “Watch” series, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is just as over-the-top in its visuals as you would expect. The film features two complex, and at times hard to decipher action sequences, one involving stampeding horses and the other onboard a train. Bekmambetov doesn’t skimp on the gore, either. Since the film is offering up a 3D version, expect plenty of severed limbs and buckets of blood flying at your face, though at times, especially during the more chaotic action sequences, the 3D hinders the flow of action rather than enhances them. Benjamin Walker (looking eerily like a young Liam Neeson) is excellent as the kung-fu fightin’ Lincoln, clearly game for everything the film requires of him. For the most part, he even ages convincingly, playing Lincoln from his ’20s to his Presidential days. Also excellent is Dominic Cooper as Lincoln’s mentor. Cooper is clearly having a blast, and is easily the film’s second most intriguing character besides Lincoln himself. I would love to see a prequel with his character one of these days.
It’s amazing what a Hollywood budget and excellent actors can do for a movie, even one with as silly a premise as “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”. Let’s face it, the film had the potential to be a disaster of epic proportions. For all intents and purposes, this movie has no rights showing up anywhere other than the Syfy Channel on a Saturday night, much less on thousands of movie screens this weekend. But here it is, in all its mad, cinematic glory. As long as you don’t plop down your hard-earned money and enter the theaters with the idea that you’re about to get a two hour History Channel documentary, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” will make for a wicked fun night at the movies. If nothing else, after watching Abe Lincoln decapitating vampires like some Samurai warrior, you’ll never look at a boring historical documentary about the 16th President of the United States the same way ever again.
Timur Bekmambetov (director) / Seth Grahame-Smith (screenplay), Seth Grahame-Smith (novel)
CAST: Benjamin Walker … Abraham Lincoln
Dominic Cooper … Henry Sturgess
Anthony Mackie … Will Johnson
Mary Elizabeth Winstead … Mary Todd Lincoln
Rufus Sewell … Adam
Marton Csokas … Jack Barts
Jimmi Simpson … Joshua Speed
Erin Wasson … Vadoma