"....And that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got a vampire to stake."
Every once in awhile, movie studios tend to put out two projects with the same theme within a few months of each other. Back in the nineties, there was Dante's Peak and Volcano taking on the notion of a natural disaster laying waste in America. A legendary Old West lawman got two different films within a few months in the form of Wyatt Earp and Tombstone. And of course the world itself was at stake due to an imminent cosmic collision with the films Deep Impact and Armageddon being released near to each other. This year is little different. Later in the year, Spielberg will be releasing a biopic of the greatest president in American history, with Daniel Day-Lewis in the role of Abraham Lincoln. At the moment, the new film Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter has just been released to theatres.
The film is based on the book by Seth Grahame-Smith, who earlier came up with the Jane Austen mashup Pride and Prejudice And Zombies. I particularly enjoyed the book, which was presented as a mix of narrative and letters, suggesting that Abe Lincoln, aside from becoming a lawyer, outstanding orator, and the saviour of his nation, spent much of his life waging a secret war against bloodsucking vampires. I wondered what might be done with it as a film, and as it turns out, the adaptation takes different turns from the novel, but still comes out as a satisfying, silly, and fun ride in the end.
As a boy, young Abe sees an attack on his mother by a man named Jack Barts (Marton Csokas, who might be recognizable to Lord of the Rings fans). She dies soon after, supposedly of poisoning. Years later, as a young man, Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) catches up to Barts, who is in fact a vampire. Lincoln encounters another man, Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper, from Captain America: The First Avenger), who takes him under his wing and helps him train to kill vampires. Sturgess himself is a vampire, a fact that he keeps to himself, not to mention his reasons for helping Lincoln.
Lincoln spends his off hours hunting and killing vampires, while making friends like Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson) and William Johnson (Anthony Mackie), and courting Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), his future wife. He achieves his revenge, and learns much more about vampires: that slavery benefits their kind enormously, that they are led by Adam (Rufus Sewell) and Vadoma (Erin Wasson), two Southern vampires with plans of their own for America, and that the undead include Sturgess himself.
|Benjamin Walker and Dominic Cooper|
|Anthony Mackie and Benjamin Walker|
Lincoln becomes President, and the Civil War erupts. During this time, one of his sons dies in a vampire attack, a fact that drives a wedge between Lincoln and his wife, and the President must continue to deal with the crisis unfolding in his country. Ultimately, the story leads to a crossroads in a small Pennsylvania town called Gettysburg (you may have heard of the place), where vampires are on the Confederate side (Jefferson Davis must be rolling over in his grave at how his reputation is completely skewered in the book and film, by the way). Lincoln himself must take up the battle against his old enemy once again. And no, the appearance of vampires at the Battle of Gettysburg wasn't in the history books.
There's bound to be an inherant silliness in a film that weaves fact and fiction like this. Abraham Lincoln as a vampire hunter is an unlikely concept, and of course it's silly, but it's also fun. Grahame-Smith adapted the screenplay from his book, and it's a tongue in cheek sort of film that I quite enjoyed. It just requires a bit of suspension of disbelief. Director Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted) gives us a fast paced, rollicking bit of entertainment that doesn't take itself too seriously- even though the actors play it seriously- and is in the end a stylish mix of action and history, with a good sense of detail and pacing. The production is well done, with some thrilling sequences and action setpieces (particularly aboard a train), though there's a bit too much reliance on the slow-down editing tricks we see too often these days in action films.
The casting is key to the film. Benjamin Walker is a newcomer to me, at least, but he does well in the lead role. He looks the part, playing Lincoln from a young man to the Civil War years, and he comes across with the right amount of gravity and seriousness for the role, never descending into caricature. He rather reminds me of a young Liam Neeson, which is appropriate, since Neeson was long thought to play Lincoln in Spielberg's adaptation. Cooper as Sturgess is a good choice. He's a fine actor, playing a man who holds much about himself back, a vampire who has to come to terms with the right thing to do, and most enjoyably, a vampire who doesn't sparkle. Sewell is one of those great actors who's terrific in pretty much anything he does. You may recognize him from roles in The Illusionist, Hamlet, or Amazing Grace. He plays Adam with relish and menace; he's a memorable villain, and yet as an actor Sewell knows that it's best not to overdo the role. Erin Wasson is also new to me, playing something of a dominatrix vamp. She comes across as marvelously sadistic. Mary Elizabeth Winstead has a bit less of an ideal role, which comes across as understated, but then Mary Todd Lincoln is never an easy role to play, and not terribly sympathetic. I'm always reminded, when I see her being played by an actress, of that old line "So aside from all that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?"
Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter is not a serious examination of the President's life, obviously. If you're looking for that, wait a few months. It is, however, an entertaining, engagingly fun movie, and it treats most vampires like the bloodsucking fiends that they are. I enjoyed it thoroughly. One thought I had after it was all over though. I found myself thinking of the late historians Bruce Catton and Shelby Foote, two of the great experts on the Civil War. What would they have thought of an Abraham Lincoln waging war against the undead? I would hope they'd have a sense of humor about it.
Otherwise they might be rolling over in their graves....