Review: ‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’ is the year’s weirdest kick

Steven Spielberg… Daniel Day-Lewis… you gentlemen have your work cut out for you.  Fair warning.

Common sense may tell you otherwise, but the rumors are true.  There is indeed a movie called “Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter.”  It is a real thing that really exists.  I have seen it.  And even now, almost two days later, I find it hard to believe that really happened.  Timur Bekmambetov has made a fever dream that plays like the supercharged imagination of a 21st Century XBOX junkie raised on 20th Century pop culture, jacked up on Mountain Dew and ADD medications, asleep during a lecture about Abe Lincoln in history class, dreaming this crazy alternate history and getting some real biography mixed up with the most hilariously insane gore and action you’ll see in any studio effort this summer.  It is deranged.  And I am here to testify that I laughed from beginning to end and had more fun than should be allowed in public.

It’s the sort of film that I want to own because there are about five scenes I want to slow down and take apart just to figure out what Bekmambetov actually did.  He is a madman.  He has a remarkable sense of how to destroy time so he can capture some hyperexaggerated burst of violence.  He has a great knack for geography and composition that has never been better indulged than it is here, and all the technical acumen he’s been picking up on his last few films, including “Wanted,” pay off here with a liquid reality that he is in complete control of, start to finish, in a way that is truly impressive.

Now, here’s the rub:  it really is a deadly serious movie about Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States of America, and his secret life that involved killing vampires.  The film ascribes some new motivations to some of the biggest real moments in Lincoln’s life, and the result is both breathtakingly tasteless and also sort of brilliantly committed.  Seth Grahame-Smith, who adapted his own book and who has become a new inner-circle collaborator for producer Tim Burton, knows that the moment the film winks at the audience about the premise, the whole thing is a bad “Saturday Night Live” sketch.  So the film plays it all so straight that it becomes (and I mean this as a genuine compliment) howlingly funny.  I am dazzled by the weird tightrope this movie manages to walk.

Benjamin Walker plays Lincoln from young adulthood to the end of his life, and my one question for Walker would be “When were you cloned from Liam Neeson?”  He’s good, but he’s asked to play such a strangely conceived character that it’s unfair to really judge anything he does.  His Lincoln adopts a silver-coated axe as his weapon of choice, and he learns to twirl it, and the emphasis that is placed on his learning to twirl it — not to swing it or kill with it, mind you, but specifically just to twirl it — is hilarious each time it’s re-emphasized.  In all of his scenes with Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who really does look at home in the period costuming), he is at ease, natural, and the two of them have a solid, easy chemistry that grounds the movie, giving the film a human quality that it needs considering how crazy stretches of it are.  When he starts to become Politician Lincoln and speak up in public, it’s all handled very quickly and in sound bites, and it’s about as deep a portrait of him as what you’d see in the Hall Of Presidents at Walt Disney World.  There’s a big time jump forward at one point that resolves in him walking towards the camera in exaggerated out-of-focus slow motion, slooooooooooowly coming into focus with the beard and the stovepipe hat both in place for the first time.  And he glowers like he’s Dolph Lundgren about to step into the ring with Rocky.  And how am I not supposed to be laughing at that point?

The film features a big bad main vampire, of course, played by Rufus Sewell, and Lincoln’s got a couple of friends who help him, including Henry Seward (Dominic Cooper) who trains him in the first place and Will Johnson (Anthony Mackie), a childhood friend who the movie is careful to establish as a free man, not a son of slaves.  The moment you start to discuss Gettysburg or slavery or any of the real-world context of this story, things start to get weird, and I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the notion that the only reason Lincoln got involved in politics was to battle a hostile takeover of the nation by bloodsucking monsters.  It takes away from the truth of the situation in a way that feels disrespectful.  Then again, this is a movie where there’s a chase scene across the backs of stampeding horses where a vampire actually uses a horse as a hand-to-hand combat weapon, so I’m not sure I’m supposed to take any of it seriously.

There are places where the movie is really polished and sharp and even beautiful, like in the climactic train chase that takes place at night, and there are places where it looks like an underfunded History Channel movie, cheap and garish, and that inconsistency is just something you have to get used to as the film plays.  It’s fairly apparent what is most important to Bekmambetov, and he does prove again here that he can stage completely impossible action scenes in a way that is almost convincing, no matter how much your brain tells you that you can’t be seeing what you’re seeing.  I remember when I first heard of “Night Watch,” the film that vaunted him to international attention.  This was a long time before Fox released it in the US, when no one had the international rights yet, and I had to go to a Russian bookstore in Hollywood to find a non-subtitled import VHS tape.  Even without being able to understand everything, I watched the film a few times and just marveled at what he pulled off without any real budget.  I was amazed by the visual invention and by the energy of his imagination, and I wrote a few pieces about how Hollywood needed to quickly find and absorb this Russian madman.  Sitting through “Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter” feels like finally cashing that check I wrote all those years ago, and I guess I can’t really complain.  Everything that was maddening about that early work is still maddening, and everything that was amazing is still amazing.  I think Bekmambetov is a talented guy, and I also think he has deranged taste in material.  I can hardly fault him for playing to his strengths, and even if hysterical laughter wasn’t the primary goal of the movie, I can honestly say I enjoyed it in that way.

Let’s put it this way… if you buy a ticket for a film called “Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter,” you have a pretty good idea what you’re going to get, and I can’t imagine anyone squeezing even one more drop of blood out of it than this director did.  I give their devotion to the lunacy an “A,” while the script itself is, at best, a “D,” which means it averages out to somewhere right in the middle.

“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” opens everywhere tomorrow.