Friday, June 22, 2012

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter: Sharp-edged alternate history

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: R, for considerable horror violence, brief sensuality and fleeting nudity
By Derrick Bang

The only thing more audaciously lunatic than this film’s skirmish atop — yes, atop — a panicked herd of horses, is the climactic battle royale aboard a speeding train.

Say what you will about this storyline’s cheeky absurdity; director Timur Bekmambetov has style to burn.

Having beheaded and otherwise dispatched most of the vampire
minions in his undead host's New Orleans mansion, Abraham Lincoln
(Benjamin Walker) suddenly must face the far more deadly
Vadoma (Erin Watson).
Actually, Bekmambetov has built his entire career on visual pizzazz; the trouble — until now — is that the scripts for his various projects have been seriously flawed. The Russian-born director came to our attention with his bizarre, often incomprehensible vampire franchise, Night Watch and Day Watch. Both films were massively popular in his native country; on our shores, however, they felt quaintly retro.

But they looked fabulous and boasted plenty of creative touches, even when it was difficult to follow the seemingly random, fever-dream narratives.

Hollywood took note, and Bekmambetov made his American film debut with 2008’s similarly flamboyant adaptation of Wanted, based on the Mark Millar/J.G. Jones comic book series. Again, though, the frenetic editing, sleek cinematography and loopy action scenes overwhelmed the ill-defined characters and insufferably haphazard script.

Happily, things are much better with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Seth Grahame-Smith’s screenplay, adapted from his own impudent novel, establishes solid characters and progresses through a clever re-boot of 19th century American history.

This saga belongs to the new literary sub-genre that Grahame-Smith founded with his first parody novel, 2009’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (due to hit the big screen next year). Although Jane Austen undoubtedly rolled over in her grave — and let’s hope she stayed there! — Grahame-Smith definitely tapped a fresh vein in the zeitgeist; if TV shows like Glee can mash up new pop songs with old classics, why not do the same with written genres?

More to the point, if Quentin Tarantino can employ his own gonzo talents to re-write history so that a squad of Jewish U.S. soldiers successfully assassinates Adolf Hitler, in 2009’s Inglourious Basterds — while also scoring an Academy Award for co-star Christoph Waltz — then surely Bekmambetov and Grahame-Smith can achieve the same results by giving “Honest Abe” something other than wood to chop, with his trusty axe.

And, frankly, Grahame-Smith’s narrative is rather clever. Once we accept the notion that 19th century vampires infiltrated the United States, with the hopes of helping the South preserve slavery — in order to maintain a readily available food supply — then everything else falls into place quite neatly. Grahame-Smith borrows just enough authentic history to help certain plot points look and sound familiar; beyond that, we simply hang on for dear life.

We meet young Abraham during a brief prologue, as he and his father, Thomas (Joseph Mawle), run afoul of a particularly nasty slaver-holder (Marton Csokas, as Jack Barts). The skirmish concludes with a minor victory for Thomas, but it’s short-lived; Barts, actually a vampire, clandestinely visits the Lincoln home that night and kills Abe’s mother.

A decade passes, during which Abraham grows into a young man (now played by Benjamin Walker) consumed by a desire for vengeance. But his reckless attempt to kill Barts goes awry when the latter reveals the full extent of his horrific powers; fortunately, Abe is rescued by the mysterious Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper).

Sturgess adopts Abe as an apprentice of sorts, explaining All Things Undead, and telling of an ancient vampire lord named Adam (Rufus Sewell), who has big plans for the United States. Adam — something of a malevolent Rhett Butler — shares a deliciously creepy antebellum mansion in New Orleans with his gorgeous but equally deadly bodyguard, Vadoma (Erin Watson).

Adam’s name isn’t accidental; he’s the true first vampire, with a vague biblical reference to source his origin. Sewell plays the role with a captivating blend of aristocratic arrogance and chilly amorality, as befits a creature who has existed for thousands of years.

Abe’s most important lesson, though — the mantra that Sturgess emphasizes — is the need to rise above a simple quest for vengeance, in order to serve a greater good. That means taking out Adam’s concealed lieutenants in big cities such as Springfield, in an effort to slow the spread of the blood-sucking undead.

As time passes, though — and as Abe becomes progressively more adept with his axe, and its silver-tipped blade — he finds that he cannot obey Sturgess’ other warnings: to refrain from making friends, or to remain out of the public spotlight. The former becomes an issue after Abe meets the delectable Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead); the latter becomes impossible when he weighs the ongoing pernicious evil of slavery, and remembers the words of his beloved mother: “Until everyone is free, we are all slaves.”

Cue Lincoln’s entry into law and politics, at which point he embraces the dual identities of all classic superheroes: stirring orator and mild-mannered shop assistant by day, vampire slayer by night. When Mary questions his continued exhaustion, he smiles and tells her the truth ... which, naturally, she doesn’t believe.

Grahame-Smith weaves an ambitious narrative that ultimately breezes through 45 years of Lincoln’s career, blending familiar political speeches — notably matches against Stephen A. Douglas (Alan Tudyk) — with increasingly athletic skirmishes against fangsters of all stripes. These battles, as well, range from the claustrophobic — a foolish assault during a high-society dance at Adam’s plantation — to the all-stops-out tableau of a Civil War battlefield.

After all, haven’t you wondered why some of those Confederate soldiers were so difficult to kill...?

Walker makes a suitably noble and angst-ridden Lincoln: a good man struggling with the horror of what he confronts each day. Walker never shies from the absurdities of his character’s duality; he plays the role utterly straight, and therefore establishes himself as a likably refined action hero. And, at 6-foot-3, he certainly has the stature to persuasively sell his performance.

Cooper’s Sturgess is an intriguing mentor: a figure of inscrutability whose rather intriguing athletic abilities beg all sorts of questions. Anthony Mackie adds some vigorous snap as the quick-witted Will Johnson, Abe’s longtime best friend and conscience. Winstead makes a fetching Mary Todd, although I’m inclined to believe that a woman of her intelligence would suss out Lincoln’s double life pretty quickly.

Jimmi Simpson is a bit harder to pin down as Joshua Speed, the shopkeeper who gives Lincoln his first job, and eventually becomes a good friend. Once made a part of Abe’s “Scooby Gang,” Speed seems to embrace this frightening battle for survival rather casually, but fear not: Grahame-Smith has a rather tricky explanation for Speed’s behavior.

A few authentic historical figures also pop up, including Harriet Tubman (Jaqueline Fleming) and Jefferson Davis (John Rothman), the latter making an unholy bargain with Adam, in order to secure the South’s chances of winning the Civil War.

Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography is as inventive as William Hoy’s editing; the muted color palette helps evoke this simpler time, while the frenzied action scenes unfold with greater vibrancy. The make-up and special-effects work are excellent, with these vampires sporting particularly nasty sets of needle-sharp teeth.

It’s all completely preposterous, of course, but you’ve gotta just go with the flow. Bekmambetov choreographs his action scenes with true panache, and if Walker’s Lincoln boasts moves that would impress even the most accomplished martial-arts expert, well, it all feels right at the time.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Killer may be pulp nonsense, but it’s a lot of fun nonetheless. And it finally, finally gives Bekmambetov a plot that’s just as inventive as his visual flamboyance.

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