22 June 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Benjamin Walker is shown in a scene from "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter."
Honest Abe. The Great Emancipator. Vampire hunter.

At long last, the secret, undead-slaying life of our 16th president has come to light, first in the 2010 novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, now in the feature film of the same name, "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter."

The premise might sound ridiculous—because it is, of course. The key is that Grahame-Smith (who also wrote the screenplay), director Timur Bekmambetov ("Wanted"), Benjamin Walker in the title role and the rest of the cast play it deadly serious. Those expecting a high camp factor will be disappointed; this is a straight-laced action-adventure film with more than enough blood to earn its R rating and action set pieces at times bordering on spectacular.

Though events (some major) are omitted for the sake of pacing and running time, there is a real respect for history, the movie following Lincoln from a young boy in Indiana until his final day in the nation's capital.

But what if it wasn't milk sickness that took his mother (Robin McLeavy) but a creature of the night (Marton Csokas) to whom his father (Joseph Mawle) owed a debt? And what if Lincoln, once he came of age, set out to avenge that murder, only to encounter the mysterious Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), who instructs him in the ways of vampire slaying? (A silver-edged ax apparently works best.)

The South, Henry tells Lincoln, is the seat of the vampires' power, slavery springing from their need for a convenient source of food. Led by a particularly troublesome bloodsucker named Adam (Rufus Sewell), they intend to expand their sphere of influence in America.

Recognizing the scope of this scourge, Lincoln decides to fight back with speeches rather than his trusty ax, eventually winning the presidency and leading the nation through its Civil War, which is not so much a conflict of North versus South as it is the living versus the undead.

Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) makes an historic speech in a scene from "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter."
Portraying Lincoln over a period of 35 years, Walker brings real humanity to the iconic role. The extent to which we care about the outcome of events we learned about in history class is largely due to his likability and conviction. By day, his Lincoln is a Clark Kent figure—a shopkeeper, attorney, politician, bumbling suitor of Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, far more fetching than the real Mary Todd, by all accounts). By night, he plays the hero, dispatching his foes with "Matrix"-like dexterity.

Sewell, in a role created for the movie (the book lacks one central villain), fails to register as much of a threat, which is just as well, as the protagonist and his partnership with Henry, who harbors a doozy of a secret, is of much greater interest.

A longer film, or maybe even a TV miniseries, would do this crazy mashup more justice than what we get here. But even in its abbreviated state, this is a clever, elegantly made melding of fact and fiction.

Greg’s Grade: B

(Rated R for violence throughout and brief sexuality. 105 minutes.)

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