Believe it or not, 2006’s “Snakes on a Plane” was aboutâ€¦snakes on a plane. And 2011’s “Hobo with a Shotgun” was about, in fact, a hobo with a shotgun! The list of movies with absurd say-it-all titles could go on from there, and often it feels like movie makers come up with a gimmicky concept and think the rest of the movie can write itself. “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” conceives the hook that the United States’ 16th president wasn’t just emancipating slaves, but slaying vampires as well. Yes, creative licenses were taken here, but the film is based on the “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”-succeeding book by Seth Grahame-Smith, who specializes in historical horror mash-ups and wrote the screenplay (after 2012’s “Dark Shadows”), so actual storytelling would be expected. Also, such a one-note idea is given an uptick by Russian Kazakh director Timur Bekmambetov (that’s Beck-mom-bet-off), who’s already played with vampire lore in 2004’s “Night Watch” and 2006’s “Day Watch,” and then served up stylized, comic-book action and nasty dark humor in 2008’s “Wanted.”
So, in theory, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” might have been gloriously ridiculous fun for its seemingly can’t-miss curiosity of a premise. At times, it delivers on that level, but on the whole, it doesn’t quite come off. Though there is certainly amusing entertainment to be had, freeing the South from bloodsuckers is never wild, all-out fun as it could and should have been. A “what if?” revision of Lincoln’s presidency is audacious enough and so inherently goofy that one would expect the film to be more aware of its own joke. Instead, Grahame-Smith and Bekmambetov take a straight-faced approach without being deadeningly self-serious, so it’s neither ready-made SyFy Channel cheese that would lose steam in 15 minutes nor a ponderous history lesson akin to “JFK” or “Nixon” that would drone on. (If one wants a bio-pic, Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is on its way in December.)
As history would have it, in 1818, Abraham Lincoln (played as a child by Lux Haney-Jardine) lived in Indiana with his parents, who owned a plantation owned by racist, vampiric Jack Barts (Marton Csokas). One night, a still-awake Abe witnesses Barts breaking into his house and “poisoning” his mother, who dies thereafter. From that moment on, Abe (now played by Benjamin Walker) commits his life to seeking vengeance on Barts, who reveals himself to be a shades-wearing bloodsucker. During his initial attack on his mother’s killer, he is rescued by a mysterious, carousing vampire tracker named Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), who opens Abe’s eyes to the existence and prevalence of vampires and begins to train him. After a decade of training with his silver-tipped ax, the rail-splitting, president-to-be Abe moves to Springfield, Illinois, where he studies law, works as a shopkeeper, and slays vampires under the guise of merchants and pastors, as well as New Orleans slave-owner Adam (Rufus Sewell).
The first half and bits of the second are where “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” succeeds as a succulent, over-the-top lark. Right off the top, a slave gets whipped across the cheek, and in 3-D, audiences should feel the sting. The scenes with Abe taking out nasty vampires are fiercely menacing and blood-spurting fun to watch, especially when a silver bullet gets shot into an eye. Abe knocking down a tree with a swing of his ax and then twirling his weapon of choice like nun-chucks during a training montage are both a hoot. There’s a gleefully over-the-top set-pieceâ€”in a dusty stampede of horses, Abe chases Barts, who proceeds to hop from steed to steed and even flings one at his pursuerâ€”that takes the cake. Even some of the slo-mo, “Matrix”-styled action is flashy and exciting in its acrobatic choreography, long-coat swooshing, and splattery ax-severings. Save for the climax set inside and atop a moving train (the one Bekmambetov staged in “Wanted” was more fun), the third act devolves into a repetitive onslaught of shrieking vamps and ax-swinging decapitations, thus running out of juice.
Cleverly developing a parallel between slaves and vampires, screenwriter Grahame-Smith and director Bekmambetov obviously play fast and loose with Abraham Lincoln’s bibliography. Honest Abe’s honesty is questioned, the Lincoln-Douglas debates come up, Harriet Tubman (Jaqueline Fleming) shows her face, the Emancipation Proclamation is issued, the Battle of Gettysburg happens (with the toothsome fiends on the Confederate side), and Mary yells for Lincoln that they’ll be late to the theater (get it?). But a lot of this section feels like “Abe’s Greatest Hits” without much of the beginning’s kick. Once Lincoln gets into politics, much of the final cut feels edited down, with a jarringly choppy narrative (Abe goes from a shopkeeping Van Helsing to president in a snap), character motivations that are either nonexistent or forced, and toothlessly developed villains. Renowned Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography is fine, but having used an Arri Alexa digital camera, the film has such a glossy, varnished, sepia-toned look that it’s distractingly cheap and often washed-out. And not to be persnickety, but CGI has never looked more green-screen fake.
Relative unknown Benjamin Walker makes for a very boyish, “common-looking” Abe, resembling a young Liam Neeson (he actually played a 19-year-old version of Neeson’s Alfred Kinsey in 2004’s “Kinsey”), and by the time he grows a beard and sports the stovepipe hat, he’s a dead ringer. All looks aside, Walker feels too slight and bereft of conviction and gravitas, even if he wisely plays the role straight. Dominic Cooper lends some flamboyant gusto as Abe’s mentor Henry, but the respectable Anthony Mackie is squandered in the role of Will Johnson, Abe’s formerly enslaved childhood friend. On the standout distaff side, Mary Elizabeth Winstead is fetching and credible in 19th-century dress, as Mary Todd, and shares a nice rapport with Walker. On a picnic, Abe is honestly upfront with her about working nights, killing six vampires, and she just humors him. Marton Csokas sinks his teeth into the part of Barts, but Rufus Sewell, always the token bad guy, and model Erin Wasson are merely serviceable.
“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” doesn’t deserve a stake through the heart, but it’s a disappointment, empty glossiness with as much cheeky humor as a put-upon slave. There should’ve been more horse flinging or a fanged John Wilkes Booth could’ve showed up at the theater. We could play the “Coulda Shoulda Woulda” game, but what’s done is done. While we’re at it, what could be next? George Washington: Exorcist? Bill Clinton: Lady Killer? Come on, where’s your sense of humor?
105 min., rated R.
Grade: C +