Director Timur Bekmambetov’s visual flair is a vision to behold, but a uncompelling script holds the sixteenth president back from a better term at the box office.
Welcome to the AU, the “alternative universe” of American history. In this retelling, a young Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) observes his mother’s true killer: a vampire in the night. Vowing revenge, Abe returns to confront his mother’s murderer but is nearly killed himself. Recognizing the potential and passion in one so young, a mentor arrives in the form of Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper) to instruct an eager Lincoln in how to properly dispatch the living dead from this Earth. As it turns out, Abe’s oratory skills serve both himself and the nation better as president, but as the American Civil War threatens to tear the nation apart, the battles of brother vs. brother will escalate into human vs. vampire.
In the spirit of new AU fiction like “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” the undead has now invaded American history in the same way it has rewritten classic literature. No one can dispute the vision of Timur Bekmambetov in directing an actioneer; from his previous films, the most absurd action sequences unfold in brilliant ways, and this movie is no exception. The problem lies in suspension of disbelief; when you’re already asking an audience to accept that a future president is secretly a vampire slayer, the rest of your facts better line up without question. While the visuals and performances are compelling, the charactererization on which the story hinges lacks an appropriate suspension of disbelief (even for a fantasy film).
The first glitch occurs early on, where we’re asked to accept that “Abe Lincoln can chop through a tree with one swing of his axe.” Again, this looks cool (and it isn’t a little tree), but the explanation for it is flimsy at best. Abe isn’t “the chosen one,” he isn’t high on “V,” nor does his weapon of choice possess any specific mystical powers that would enable single-swing deforestation. Since the entire film’s plot hinges on this setup, it puts the whole thing on thin ice right from the start. Then you have a scene where a vampire is running from Abe by jumping across the backs of a stampede of horses (okay, sure, he’s a vamp), and then (not kidding here) Lincoln follows him, jumping from unsaddled running horse to running horse. While the action is indeed a spectacle, it is completely distracting in its implausibility. We expect our villainous vamps to do supernatural things, but we expect our human heroes to overcome that with more brains than brawn. If the vamps are better, then they should be winning, right?
(mild spoiler to follow)
How could it have worked and been just as visually amazing? The vampire is gleefully jumping from horse to horse, not really paying attention to where Abe is and overconfident that Abe can’t follow him the same way. Showing superior luck or skill, Abe rides his horse to the edge of the herd along a cliff (there’s conveniently one in the film) and spurs his horse on to catch up to the vampire on the opposite and more dangerous side. As the vamp turns back to gloat at how far he believes Lincoln is behind him, he realizes Lincoln isn’t over his right shoulder anymore. The confused vamp then suspiciously looks over his left shoulder instead, just in time to see Abe make a single jump onto the back of the vamp’s horse and allowing the scene to continue as written from this point on. Problem solved and perfectly human.
(end mild spoiler)
The screenplay sensibilities of writer Seth Grahame-Smith are what’s being called into question (especially in light of how lackluster the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp version of Dark Shadows turned out), but as the same guy who actually wrote the book that film version of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is based upon, the question is this: is it the final cut that’s undermining these films or a bad initial script? On a positive note, Lincoln is certainly a step up from Dark Shadows, but maybe Seth’s next movie-in-development Pride and Prejudice and Zombies will fare batter leaving vampires in their coffins for a while.
Benjamin Walker plays Abe from an idealistic youth to the very end of Abe’s presidency and pulls it off well (and especially when twirling an axe), while Mary Elizabeth Winstead lends plenty of period piece spunk to the future Mrs. Lincoln. Go-to villain Rufus Sewell is back doing his bad guy thing again, and because it’s been a while since his last moustache twirling, he’s a welcome addition here. The real star, however, are the visuals of the film, whether it’s the building of Washington DC, riverboats on the Mississippi, a topside train battle across a burning bridge, or a multifunction axe of death that Buffy would envy. With Bekmambetov, it’s all about the details, and in spite of any perceived flaws, it’s hard not to watch and smile.
(a two and half skull recommendation out of four)