There are some movie stars who make it nearly impossible to separate their off-screen selves from the roles they play. Vin Diesel, star of The Last Witch Hunter, has taken that to the next level — or maybe the 20th level, depending on the roll of your 7-sided die. The unlikeliest Dungeons & Dragons fan in the world somehow convinced a studio to finance a film partially inspired by his favorite character, a half-Drow witch hunter named Melkor. It’s hard not to marvel at Diesel’s determination while watching The Last Witch Hunter, because it’s clear he’s just following his bliss, Joseph Campbell-style. He has a flaming sword, for Odin’s sake! The movie doesn’t miss an action hero beat, but those up for living out Vin’s D&D dreams should find The Last Witch Hunter surprisingly enjoyable.
Diesel plays Kaulder, a complete badass with the sort of luxurious lifestyle (and endless parade of sexy one night stands) more associated with Bruce Wayne instead of your local dungeon master. It also doesn’t hurt that Kaulder’s sidekick is played by Michael Caine, although instead of a stodgy butler he’s a priest who’s part of an ancient tradition of priests who stick around to keep track of Kaulder’s shenanigans and, you know, be his only friend. Tragedy strikes just as Dolan the 36th (Caine) is handing off the gig to Dolan the 37th (Elijah Wood), and Kaulder vows to find and punish whoever is responsible. It doesn’t take long for Kaulder to find the culprits: the followers of his number one enemy, the Witch Queen who cursed him with immortality, are behind this dark magic.
Directed by Breck Eisner (The Crazies), The Last Witch Hunter combines a lot mumbo jumbo that probably makes sense to Diesel, co-writer Cory Goodman, and whoever else can track down their world-building campaign bible. We get slivers of it when Kaulder clicks into his witch-hunting mode — he can breathe on windows to reveal Icelandic sigils that indicate magic is nearby, for instance, or use unexplained powders and potions to reveal messages and symbols. He can use random items to dowse for the witch that’s causing turbulence on his international flight; some young dummy just threw her runes together in her bag, not knowing they would combine to create a crazy electrical storm! “Is he witch-splaining?” my friend whispered to me. He totally was witch-splaining, and he’s not even a witch. Typical.
So, some witches are good, some are bad, there’s a witch council and a witch jail, and Kaulder is around to make sure everyone stays within the guidelines — no black magic, like the kind that the 14th-level warlock known as Max Schlesinger (Isaach De Bankolé) is hustling to some bakery that makes cupcakes with bugs or something. There’s an entire world of witches who pass for human; they hang out at this bar owned by a cheeky redhead named Chloe, played by Game of Thrones‘ Rose Leslie with her best “You know nothing” ‘tude. Instead of fancy cocktails, they sip potions! Frankly, it looks like a lot of fun. It’s too bad Diesel is so invested in killing witches and not being one; he would be a great warlock. Instead, he’s an 800-year-old loner tormented by the memories of his dead wife and child. All the witch-killing gadgets in his arsenal can’t fill the hole in his Viking heart!
Speaking of Vikings, there’s some weird subtext happening with Nordic mythology, what with the references to runes and the Icelandic sigils and the casting of Ólafur Darri Ólafsson as the Queen Witch’s right-hand man, Belial. It’s all very confusing. And while it would be a stretch to say the film’s portrayal of female witches is straight-up misogynist, it does take a rather dim view of the feminine. Like, all those murderous trees and dark holes that people get sucked into and the Queen Witch’s vision of a world where nature has overtaken the creations of man? This is definitely not your mama’s touchy-feely goddess circle.
Magical quibbling and narrative logic aside, The Last Witch Hunter isn’t a bad film. It’s Vin Diesel’s dream, and the fact that it exists is deeply strange and somehow satisfying. There’s a neat twist or two that I didn’t see coming. Wood gets a few enjoyable throw-away lines, like “I’ll get a receipt!” when Kaulder gives him $20 for a cab. The effects are fair to middling, and the action shots so quickly spliced together so that it’s hard to tell what exactly is happening, other than stabbing, fire, and the ever-present flies that surround the Queen Witch’s dark magic.
Although it’s doubtful that The Last Witch Hunter will become a cult favorite like The Chronicles of Riddick, it’s still a fairly enjoyable way to spend 98 minutes. And, hey, given Kaulder’s new friendship with the no-nonsense Chloe, there’s a good chance that the Last Witch Hunter might be forced to rethink his anti-witch ways.