Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Review: The Last Witch - Trust and Tension

The Last Witch Hunter is a Vin Diesel movie. By that I mean it's fun, it's exciting, it's a touch melodramatic (in a good way), and it's incredibly imaginative.

It's also a bit disappointing. Especially if you've seen Pitch Black recently.

A movie like Pitch Black is a hell of a thing to saddle an actor with early in his career. You know what he's capable of, and you want to see him hit those heights again. And when it's a near thing, it hurts a little.

What follows is less a review than a dissection of how so much can go right and the movie still be a near miss. If you're on the fence at all, go see it. It's fun. You'll be entertained. Diesel's character has a lot of heart, the visuals are entrancing, and if you've ever been attracted to the whole goth thing, you'll find something to enjoy in the world they've created. So yeah, close this post and come back after you've seen the movie.

Ok, so what's wrong? It's not the acting. Diesel's badass-with-a-heart might not be as dramatic as his badass-shocked-to-discover-he-has-a-heart from Pitch Black, but he's very much a hero you can root and cheer for. Michael Caine does his Alfred thing, which does a very good job hiding his character's dark secret.

But then there's Rose Leslie. From her very first line, we know she's set up to be the love interest in this story, and they never allow her to shake that feeling. And that undercuts everything that happens between the two characters. Their relationship is all about trust. He's the Last Witch Hunter, the immortal badass who slays witches. He's got a nasty reputation, and while we know it's not entirely earned, he certainly leans on it throughout the film. And she's a witch, a witch with a dark secret that ought to set our Witch Hunter's spidey-senses tingling.

But when they're forced to trust each other, we don't feel any risk in it at all. Of course she can trust him; he's the hero! He smiles at kids and risks his life to save little puppies! (Ok, not really on the puppies part, but if there had been any, you know he'd have totally saved them.) And she's the love interest! Of course he can trust her.

So there's no frisson there. No tension, no spark, just meh. Remember that scene in Terminator 2, where they take the chip out of Ahnold's head, and Sarah Conner is standing over it with that hammer in hand? She can smash him to bits. And everything in her background, her character, up to this point, says she's gonna do it. You can feel the tension in the air, feel how much she totally wants to smash that motherfucker to broken bits.

The Last Witch Hunter needed that moment. We needed to see Leslie holding Diesel's life in her hand (or worse) and we needed to see her tempted. We needed to wonder, "Oh crap, is she really going to do it?!?"

But we don't. We know she's totally trustworthy, so when that trust is put to the test, and passes, we just shrug and move on. And without it, there's nothing much else to get excited about with her. Oh, she's fun and all, and we understand, on an intellectual level, what her bond is with the Witch Hunter, but we don't feel it. Their relationship is simply taken for granted by the script, robbing it of pretty much any spark.

Which is frustrating when you consider how much we ought to be trusting Elijah Wood's character, but we totally don't and are not shocked at all by his third act betrayal. Again, Wood never earns our trust in this film, never woos us away from our loyalty to Caine's character. In fact, the warmth between Caine's character and Diesel's, and Wood's youthful, big-eyed face keep us from investing trust in him. We expect him to fail (more so to youthful naivete and inexperience, perhaps, but still). So we're very much expecting him to fuck up, prove he's not up to the obvious level of trust and admiration we have for Caine, trust and admiration so strong that when *his* betrayal is revealed, we don't hold it against him for a moment.

So yeah, I'm blaming the writing on this one. We don't feel the risk where it ought to be. We don't feel the trust where it ought to be. This film, in short, doesn't do enough to mislead us, to tease us and make us question our assumptions. Because of that, it feels very paint-by-the-numbers in its plot beats.

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