Two films into his English-language directing career, and already Timur Bekmambetov is spinning his wheels. But at least when the Kazakh director does so, the wheels have glistening silver rims and spin in hyperdetailed, superslow motion, all while the car is spinning through the air in a graceful, arcing corkscrew.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter has no cars, of course, but there are plenty of those post-Matrix action stylings the director likes so much. There's so little variation from his past work here, though, that the film seems cobbled together with spare parts from his Hollywood debut, the curving-bullet Angelina Jolie actioner Wanted, and the cult Russian vampire movie that put him on the U.S. radar, Night Watch. To say that it's an exercise in style over substance is perhaps an overstatement, in that it suggests there's any substance here at all.
But oh, what style. This Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) — sprung tall and lanky from Seth Grahame-Smith's best-selling novel, which he adapts here for the screen — wields a silver-plated ax with the baton-twirling expertise of a vigilante drum major, driven by a single-minded desire to exact vengeance on the vampire who killed his mother when he was a boy. When he puts that ax into action, time slows down, and Bekmambetov tracks his killing strokes in a ballet of digital blood and dismemberment.
Grahame-Smith's story takes the basic chronology and facts of Lincoln's life and reshapes them to fit around a secret identity as a vampire hunter, trained in his calling by a do-gooder vampire named Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper).
The slave trade in America is explained as a vampire plot to create a captive food supply; Lincoln's time working in an Illinois general store — in reality he co-owned it, though in the film, he's just a clerk — sets up a solitary home base for his vampire assassinations. The Civil War itself becomes a war against vampires allied with the Confederacy, each of those factions with its own interest in keeping slavery intact.
Apparently, despite being adapted by the author, the film strays far from Grahame-Smith's original text, yet it still feels very much like a movie adapted from a novel — and poorly adapted, at that. The pacing is as disjointed and jumpy as Bekmambetov's action sequences are fluid and orderly, as if entire chunks of detailed, novelistic narrative were simply excised to make room for more action.
A couple of those set pieces do go a long way toward making the movie watchable, particularly a legitimately thrilling fight between Lincoln and the vampire leader, a wealthy plantation owner named Adam (Rufus Sewell), that takes place amid a massive stampede of horses. The special effects artists use the cloud of dust kicked up by the thundering hooves to obscure the artificiality of the CGI horses, giving it a dirty, visceral feel that much of the rest of the film, wrapped in a slick digital sheen, often lacks.
For all the attention paid to the meticulously constructed look of the film, it's remarkable how truly awful some of the production values are. Walker wears a prosthetic nose so obviously fake that one expects someone to walk up to him, rip it off and reveal him to be an impostor Lincoln.
The aging makeup used for Lincoln and Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) during his presidency is so slipshod that Winstead in particular seems barely able to move her face to speak — as if she's injected some 19th-century Botox progenitor that causes skin to sag before it atrophies.
And while that horse chase may be a highlight, the film's climactic train chase is so artificial-looking that one wonders if someone forgot to cut the last few checks to the usually reliable effects wizards at Weta Digital.
Add to that massive lapses in the plausibility of some sequences, and the whole thing collapses into an incoherent mess. Yes, I recognize the irony of making believability complaints in a film about Abraham Lincoln fighting vampires, but the logistics the filmmakers try to pass off as possible — particularly involving Lincoln's plan to turn the tide at the Battle of Gettysburg — are insults to basic common sense, even within this manufactured alternate universe. Whatever spark of originality caused Grahame-Smith's book to become a runaway success has burned out entirely here, snuffed by Bekmambetov's slavish dedication to looking cool. Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.