(by Dustin Putman
Embracing a filmmaking style that is always on the go, full of such urgency that he doesn't seem to ever have time to include so much as an opening title credit, Timur Bekmambetov gifted 2008's action extravaganza "Wanted" with a restless, vibrating spirit that immaculately matched the inner turmoil of its hero, a miserable nine-to-five office worker who breaks free from his dead-end fate when he learns of a destiny far greater than anything he could have imagined. The particulars of the story were ridiculous, based on a comic book series about a fraternity of assassins who receive the identity of their marks through the threading of a magical loom, but the film moved at such a breathless clip that one could easily overlook its sillier elements. Director Bekmambetov's ability to bring legitimacy to the out-there would seem to be tailor-made for "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," an adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith's 2010 novel of the same name. Very much falling into the historical fiction genre, the book and ensuing movie, written by Grahame-Smith (2012's "Dark Shadows") and Simon Kinberg (2012's "This Means War"), deliver exactly what the title suggests. In chopping this reimagined biopic of the 16th President of the United States down to 105 minutes, however, Bekmambetov's break-neck narrative doesn't always mesh with the need and expectation for a little more substance to go along with its vamp slaying. Starting well and culminating in a lackluster second half, it is far too streamlined and spotty to satisfy as anything more than a pulpy slice of summer movie inconsequence. Article continues below
As a young boy living in 1818 Pigeon Creek, Indiana, Abraham Lincoln (Lux Haney-Jardine) witnessed his beloved mother's demise at the sharp-clawed hands (and pointy teeth) of the malevolent Jack Barts (Marton Csokas). Some years later, as a man in his twenties, Lincoln (now played by Benjamin Walker) vows to avenge her death. Trained and mentored by new friend Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper), he begins his search for the vampires that exist undetected amongst the living. As his life leads him first to Springfield, where he works as a shopkeeper's assistant and falls in love with Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and then to Washington, D.C., where his political lobbying puts him in the White House, Lincoln's undercover mission never falters. Throughout the Civil War and his executive order to free slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation, he narrows in on a trio of early undead figures more powerful than the rest: Adam (Rufus Sewell), Vadoma (Erin Wasson), and Barts himself.
For roughly half of its running time, "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer" is an immersive and clever twisting of fact with the supernatural, aided by an unassumingly commanding performance from relative unknown Benjamin Walker (2006's "Flags of Our Fathers") in his auspicious first leading-man role. Walker, uncannily resembling not only the real-life man he is portraying but also Daniel Day Lewis (who, not coincidentally, will be depicting the same character in Steven Spielberg's upcoming, likely vampire-free "Lincoln"), turns his iconic President into a man who never loses sight of his humble beginnings even as he begins to lead the country and fight for the issues he believes in. As the film also sees Lincoln, he's a master with the ax (his weapon of choice, seen twirling it like a baton in a montage sequence the movie probably could have done without) and ceaseless in his desire to rid the world of an evil most of his countrymen and women are unaware of. The early scenes where Lincoln goes one-on-one with a series of bloodsuckers give the horror of the tale its bite. In recent years, vampires have become homogenized as tragic, lovelorn immortals, but director Timur Bekmambetov sees them as frightening figures of the unknown. Genuinely creepy in spots as the baddies contort into monstrous beings and Lincoln narrowly escapes doom, the film's opening forty-five minutes spark with jittery anxiousness. Likewise, Lincoln's initial romance with future wife Mary Todd is sweet and funny, as when she uses his top hat to stand on for her goodnight kiss.
Once Abraham reunites with his black childhood friend Will Johnson (Anthony Mackie) and is urged by Senator Jeb Nolan (Frank Brennan) to enter into the political fray, there is a sudden, almost jolting turn. Smooth storytelling segues into a race through the latter half of Lincoln's life that wouldn't even pass muster as a CliffsNotes version. With Lincoln and Mary moving from young lovers to a graying middle-aged couple virtually in the space of one scene, the suspicion is that some enormously heavy cutting has been done on the finished product in order to keep it well below the two-hour mark. Lincoln's presidency is treated like an afterthought, and his fight against vampires becomes more robotic—a means to an end with little of the tension or threat found in the beginning sections. Save for an exceptionally mounted set-piece where Lincoln chases one of his targets over the backs of a stampede of horses, the narrative starts choppily running together. A climactic scene on a train might have been more impressive had Bekmambetov not already one-upped it with a similar sequence in "Wanted."
By the time Lincoln is delivering the Gettysburg Address near the end of "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," the realization has long since set in that a disconnect has occurred between the real man and his work and the exaggerated one that this cinematic adaptation has shortchanged. Thus, what might have been an epic tale of masterfully threaded revisionism is rendered something lesser and altogether more standard. At least one sign of the emotional levity that could have been survives; as Lincoln prepares to head out with Mary for a fateful night at Ford's Theatre, he says, "Vampires are not the only things that live forever." It's a line that speaks volumes without needing to spell out the heroism of people who sacrifice in order to fight for positive change in the world. Had more truth found its way into the story's fabrication, "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" might have been able to bridge the gap between the thrills of a horror picture with the prestige and emotion of grandiose drama. As is, the film falls frustratingly short on both accounts.