It's all right there in the title, so don't walk into a film called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter with a chip on your shoulder. You may like, love or detest the film, but by purchasing a ticket for a film with that title, you officially recuse yourself from being a snarky wise-ass. You buy the ticket, and you've already bought the concept, and no amount of clever eye-rollings will make you seem cooler for knocking a broad, strange, amusing, and admirably straight-faced action/horror flick entitled Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. This is hardly any sort of masterpiece, but it is precisely what movies like Van Helsing, Jonah Hex, and The Mummy 3 attempted and failed: an effects-laden, tongue-in-cheek, period-piece monster movie that aims to bring some modernized butt-kicking back to an era we generally take pretty seriously: the American Civil War.
I feel like I'm being defensive about Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter right out of the gate, and that's not a smart way to cover a movie. Clearly I am a huge fan of genre combo platters, this one being a "Western Action Horror" flick with a dash of romance and some sly -- but not silly -- humor. But I also think I'm pretty demanding when it comes to multi-genre concoctions that are built with tons of studio money. To put it another way: big-budget studio money doesn't always know what horror fans really want. (See the films I mentioned in the last paragraph.) Fortunately, studio money sometimes yields something disconcertingly amusing as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. I scoffed at the concept, I sorta-sneered at the trailer -- but the movie is here, and hey, it's actually a pretty bad-ass movie.
Based on the novel of the same name, and adapted for the screen by the original author (that'd be Seth Grahame-Smith), Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is absurd, outlandish, and even ridiculous in concept, but thanks to a team of filmmakers who take a straight-faced (but not entirely serious) approach to the material, what we have is a very fine example of a very goofy idea: that Abraham Lincoln was, in addition to being a lawyer and a president, also a powerfully skilled vampire assassin. I'll leave the backstory and the various sidekicks for you to discover on your own, but it seem as if the producers all got together and said "This is already going to be silly. Let's try to keep it from being stupid.' They succeeded. Rare is a film this silly that's also this quietly clever.
Stylish and raucous one moment, and then oddly charming the next, Abe Lincoln: Vamp Axer (my own title) is unapologetic in its arcane nature, but it's also sly enough to incorporate a cockeyed humanity throughout most of the craziness. So while there are three or four crazy action scenes that, let's be honest, make no sense in a world bound by the laws of physics, there are also numerous quiet moments in which leading-man newcomer Benjamin Walker (instantly likable) strikes a strong chemistry with Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Anthony Mackie, Dominic Cooper, and Jimmi Simpson. Every action hero, especially a presidential one, deserves some capable support, and this is a rather winning ensemble indeed. As head villains we have professional snarlers like Marton Csokas and Rufus Sewell, and those guys are always fun, and they're joined by a gorgeously evil newcomer known as Erin Wasson. There's not a weak link in this scrappy cast, and that's no small feat for a risky flick like this.
(One more spot of praise for Benjamin Walker: this whole crazy concoction rests on his shoulders, and he carries the film exceedingly well. It feels weird to say that, considering the outrageous liberties that have been taken with a great man's life, but hey, this is pure comic-book-style fiction, and Walker does a damn good job here.)
Directed with pop and energy by the visualistic madman Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted, Day Watch), and consistently eye-pleasing thanks to the cinematography by the excellent Caleb Deschanel, AL:VH is a sundae bar of genre treats, but the film does sag in the middle just a bit, and it'd probably be better served at 94 minutes instead of its present 106 (and, as usual, the third act is peppered with hasty ADR band-aids), but why snipe at a handful of "grown-up" complaints when the childish stuff is presented so craftily? Call it "better than it should have been," a "pulpy matinee," or (gasp) a "guilty pleasure" if you must -- but if we're going to trash Van Helsing for all the stuff it got wrong, then it only seems fair to give Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter a pat on the back for getting a lot of stuff right.