Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, like Snakes on a Plane, tells you everything you need to know about it in the four words comprising its title. Timur Bekmambetov’s film gains or loses an audience based on how cool one perceives the sight of Abraham Lincoln chopping down wave after wave of CGI vampires down with a silver-lined ax as being. Whereas Snakes on a Plane suffered from bowing too much to the internet meme culture that got so much from the movie’s premise that they didn’t feel the need to see the actual film, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is so dry and mirthless one wonders what the point is. Dour films about CGI bloodsuckers are released two at a time. One featuring a kick-ass, kung-fu president almost can’t help standing out among the crowd. Despite those easy expectations, Bekmambetov—whose Wanted neutered a comic book about a world overrun by Batman villains by becoming an uninspiring Matrix clone—does almost everything in his power to disappoint. In this, he succeeds.
But let’s forget about that for a moment. Forget, too, everything you think you know about Abraham Lincoln. Let’s say that his true passion in this world was the slaying of vampires, that, after witnessing the murder of his mother by a particularly nasty vampire, the young Mr. Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) puts down his law books and takes up his axe. Endowed by his creator with certain unalienable rights, among them the pursuit of bloody vengeance, Lincoln puts a ball squarely in the eye of Jack Barts (Marton Csokas), his mother’s killer, but Barts doesn’t die. When Lincoln is rescued by Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper), a man who observed the future president drinking furiously in preparation for his task, he’s let in on the secret history of the world: vampires exist, and, since the colonization of America, have used the vast plantations of the south and the country’s reliance upon slavery as a free buffet.
This sounds like the set-up to a pretty good genre flick but Lincoln’s vampire slaying origins are hashed out for half of the film’s runtime and involve all manner of uninteresting characters. There’s William Johnson (Anthony Mackie) and Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson), two of Lincoln’s earliest and closest friends, and Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), atypical one-dimensional love interest. Sturges himself is a glum tutor with a secret as obvious as the sunglasses he constantly wears, and Lincoln makes for a particularly uninspired chosen one, disavowing guns in favor of an axe he whips around at lightning speed. The antagonist vampires—Adam (Rufus Sewell) and Vadoma (Erin Wasson)—are distinguished mainly by their pointy teeth and flashy attire.
The movie starts rolling when Lincoln is in the White House. The Emancipation Proclamation is issued to deprive southern vampires of their main food source, Union troops are befuddled when they find that their bullets do little against the vampiric armies of the Confederacy, and the South seems poised to break through at Gettysburg. It’s at this point that Lincoln remembers that silver destroys vampires and orders the appropriation of every last piece of silver. As Roger Ebert points out in his review of this movie, it seems like Lincoln is able to gather, melt, and re-purpose every ounce of silver in the United States of America in a day. The better to reach the film’s climactic action sequence, of course. What’s more strange, to me, is that the protection, fueling, and conduction of the train falls upon Lincoln and his small band of friends. Even if you’re trying to sneak the train past an unsuspecting enemy, is the President of the United States really the best choice to pilot a speeding locomotive?
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter lives and dies by that sequence, pitting Lincoln and his friends against the vampire horde determined to derail the train bearing silver munitions to the front line. With the bridge on fire and the odds of survival against them, Lincoln, Speed, Johnson, and Sturges battle a veritable army of vampires, hacking, slashing, and shooting through wave after wave of them, hardly pausing to reload. The effectiveness of this scene is directly proportional to the number of murky, blue and grey lit, slow motion kung-fu action sequences you’ve seen lately. Considering that the market is absolutely saturated with such set pieces and that the only things distinguishing this one from the rest are the president and his ax, it’s rather unfortunate that Bekmambetov and screenwriter/novelist Seth Grahame-Smith didn’t approach the film with the same lightheartedness the mash-up genre was practically founded upon. The occasion of a president slaying vampires is treated as just another excuse for a group of characters to violently dispatch as many computer generated images as the budget allows. In this instance, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is late to the party: the genre has long been out of such excuses.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. With Benjamin Walker (Abraham Lincoln), Dominic Cooper (Henry Sturges), Anthony Mackie (Will Johnson), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Mary Todd Lincoln), Rufus Sewell (Adam), Marton Csokas (Jack Barts), Jimmi Simpson (Joshua Speed), and Erin Wasson (Vadoma). Directed by Timur Bekmambetov from a script by Seth Grahame-Smith, based on the novel Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, by Grahame-Smith.