Director Timur Bekambetov’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, an awkward mash-up of historical fiction, satire and horror, couldn’t be less inspired. “History is made of legends, not men,” we learn in the opening sequences—not exactly apropos for a movie sure to be quickly forgotten. In a forgettable superhero genre film that attempts a revision of Lincoln’s youth, presidency and, of all things, the Underground Railroad, the cleverness begins and ends with the title.
Based on the successful novel of the same name, the movie imagines an alternate history where Abe Lincoln (bland Broadway star Benjamin Walker) carries out his stately duties while leading a double life—that of an action hero, whose specialty is slaying vampires. All in a day’s work! In this version, he’s more worried about a vampire uprising than about freeing slaves, and that is where this movie fumbles.
Early stretches chart the boyhood life of young Abe, whose mother’s death instills in him a hatred of vampires. He also comes to resent slavery, including the subjugation of his boyhood pal, Will (Anthony Mackie, acting in a better film), who becomes his lifelong friend.
Into the mix comes Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who in the campiest of scenes introduces herself in the local five-and-dime. The pair shares a ho-hum courtship and later, a son, where the film tries unsuccessfully to wring melodrama.
In the film’s best performance, we also meet Henry Sturgess (dependable Dominic Cooper, slumming after a bravura turn in The Devil’s Double), himself a vampire but one who becomes a confidant and mentor to Abe, equally comfortable with both oration and the axe. Henry and Abe conspire to destroy the vampire legion, led by Adam (Rufus Sewell, typically fine).
And so it goes, in a film where one might have expected more of an emphasis on slavery, and though the film deals with the topic in an ancillary fashion, it never rises above a cartoon treatment in a movie that focuses the majority of its time on the undead—slice, shoot, repeat—passé and colorless villains that never rise above one dimension.
In fairness, the picture does manage a few good jokes—one about an evil empire forming in the southern states, another about a “railroad” transporting silver and a third about a night out at the theater—all tasteless, all funny.
American audiences will recognize Russian director Bekambetov’s singular shooting style from 2008’s agreeably over-the-top actioner Wanted, starring Angelina Jolie as a member of an elite cabal of assassins. In that picture, Bekambetov mounted an exceptionally thrilling sequence where a high-speed train crashes over a deep gorge—the kind of set piece that kept extravagantly topping itself.
But there are no such pleasures in this film, just two resolutely fake-looking and assaultive action climaxes. The first, a ludicrous CGI stampede of wild horses, ends with a horse being hurled into the air—I’m not kidding. The second, involving a speeding train beset by vampires atop a mile-high set of burning tracks, merely looks fake and goes on ad nauseam—cardboard heroes dispatching cardboard villains with fake CGI. Nothing at stake.
Shot by the great Caleb Deschanel (The Right Stuff) with desaturated, sepia-infused tones, the picture mostly just looks garish and flat, despite the modicum of depth provided by the 3D process.
The film awkwardly rides the line between knowing silliness, unintentional hilarity and corny melodrama. And that’s not a good mix. Finally, any superhero tale that features a 3D whip reaching out at the audience before cascading over a young Black child’s bloodied face is nonsense—period.