A Russian Hack’s Half-Fun History of Abe Lincoln
Two visually lush sequences in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter belong in a great movie. They’d have to be extended a little; building, montaging in ways that work metaphorically as well as viscerally–such as the great horse sprint leading to the barbed wire No Man’s Land sequence of Spielberg‘s War Horse. Yet these sequences work only in miniature because AL:VH is essentially asinine.
Director Timur Bekmambetov combines a real life historical figure with the cheap fantasies of horror films and video games. The 16th President of the United States, who presided over the Civil War, becomes a kick-ass action figure. The fabled rail-splitter is taken out of folklore and bowdlerized into an exploitation movie tough guy who swings his ax, taking-out vampires who threaten to take over the Republic. His posture (actor Benjamin Walker bears a hilarious resemblance to the strapping, young Liam Neesom–Spielberg‘s first choice to play Lincoln. Take that!) recalls both Buford Pusser in Walking Tall and a nunchucks-wielding Bruce Lee.
Bekmambetov has the talent to give such iconography primal yahoo satisfaction. But the insipid premise (from screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith who wrote the absurd literary genre mash-up Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) makes trash of American history and authentic folklore. Bekmambetov becomes an illustrator of trivia–nothing profound or heartfelt–which means the sight of Lincoln strutting atop a hurtling freight train to whup a vampire’s ass is silly, although thrillingly paced and designed for excitement. Best comic book splash yet.
Ironically, AL:VH descends from TV kitsch like Buffy the Vampire Slayer more than stirring neo-folklore like Neveldine-Taylor’s superb Jonah Hex which found brilliant parallels for Reconstruction-era malaise and metaphoric depictions of revenge, war guilt and made time for deep metaphysical speculation. But here, simply depicting the Confederacy as bloodsuckers, diminishing the ethical Lincoln-Douglas debate to a brawler’s streetwise bravado, is insulting–though less offense than Bekmambetov’s slaughter-fest Wanted which lacked nostalgia or patriotism.
The stupidity here is frequently disguised by impressive, anachronistic set-pieces: that horse stampede, that freight train crossing a burning bridge, several dissolve-transitions that mix historical flashback with fevered hallucination. Bekmambetov’s visual references evoke both artful Soviet epics and lavish Chinese period films (think Chen Keige’s astonishing The Promise or Zack Snyder’s 300). Vast fields, a transitional Washington, D.C., phalanxes of soldiers on battlefields out of Matthew Brady–all ransack the legacy of historical visual narrative. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel employs a sepia-toned haze that plays with the idea of history yet is precise and atmospheric–though never quite believable. (This miasma complements Deschanel’s glorious sunlight in the also ersatz The Patriot.)
Though visually impressive, AL:VH cannot transcend its ridiculous premise. When the arch villain vampire (Rufus Sewell) glowers at Abe and screams “I’m going to destroy the legend of Abraham Lincoln! History will not know you as a man but as a monster!” that’s the essence of all this careless, extravagant disrespect. Only half-fun, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter trivializes itself.
Follow Armond White onTwitter at 3xchair