It would be sufficiently embarrassing to end up playing the kind of role we’ve come to expect to star Nicolas Cage, but Vin Diesel has upped the ante with The Last Witch Hunter. This is not simply a case of accepting a Cage cast-off (assuming such a thing exists). No. Mr. Diesel himself produced this movie, meaning he brought it on himself in the apparent belief that playing 800-year-old witch hunter — working for one of those super-top-secret branches of the Catholic Church — was a good idea. It wasn’t. For that matter, the ending suggests he had notions of spawning a series. This seems very unlikely.
Not only has Diesel plopped the mantle of Cage on his shoulders, he seems to have borrowed one of Cage’s justly celebrated hairpieces, since, in the period scenes, Diesel has some kind of deceased animal pelt affixed to his trademark bald dome. It gets better, though, because he also sports some kind of matted crepe hair beard that makes him look like a Ren-faire Viking. Perhaps, it would have been wiser to call it The Fast and the Furriest. Fortunately for all of us — and the sake of basic sanitation — the hirsute Diesel is dropped (apart from occasional flashbacks) once the film gets to modern times.
The whole idea is that 800 years ago (give or take) Diesel — playing a character only known as Kaulder — killed off the Witch Queen (Julie Engelbrecht), who cursed him with eternal life. Well, it’s eternal life or the next best thing, since his longevity — rather like that of the bad guy in Captain Sindbad (1963) — depends on her heart being preserved in beating condition. So, up to our present time, the only thing standing between us and our destruction at the hands of witches is Vin Diesel. Sobering thoughts don’t get any more sobering.
These days, Kaulder’s job is to put bad witches into “the witch prison” (no fooling, that’s what it’s called — and it takes most of the movie for anybody to question the wisdom of amassing all this powerful evil), since they’re no longer put to the stake. (One could make the case that this is some sneaky pro-capital punishment screed, but one would then have to accuse the movie of having two brain cells to rub together. The evidence is lacking.) In between such assignments, he seems to while away his spare time romancing hot airline stewardesses and tinkering with old watches. He’s picked up more than personal hygiene in eight centuries.
As this part of the story commences, Kaulder’s church-familiar, the 36th Dolan (Michael Caine, who, I’m convinced, took the role since it’s mostly played lying down) is retiring and being replaced by the 37th one (Elijah Wood). However, next thing you know, Dolan 36 has died, Kaulder detects the aroma of witchly rodentia — and a dire plot to bring back the Witch Queen is uncovered. There is much consternation — along with convoluted plotting, assorted duplicities, romance, the revelation that Kaulder is the world’s biggest sucker, etc. It’s all sufficiently goofy that it ought to be entertaining, at least in a wayward fashion. In fairness, some of it is, but not enough.
For every nice touch of film noir parody, there are two or three instances of a mythology that never really defines itself. For every cool idea — like the potion-bar run by shape-shifting romantic interest Rose Leslie — there are at least a half-dozen instances of badly-crafted action scenes, bloated CGI effects, transparent plot twists and groan-inducing stabs at cleverness. The balance of the ledger here is, most assuredly, far into the red. It’s not the worst thing out there by any means, but, unless you’ve been thinking that what your life has been lacking is Vin Diesel festooned with fake hair and brandishing a flaming sword, I can imagine no possible reason to seek it out. Rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence and frightening images.