I’m scared for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. I really am. The movie stars Benjamin Walker as the 16th President of the United States, who it turns out was also a prolific and nearly superpowered exterminator of the undead. Whether it’s good or not seems almost incidental. You either want to see that movie or you don’t. And yet it’s my job to tell you if it’s worth your time, since film critics are the last line of defense between audiences and marketing departments who’d like you to think that every single film in the universe is a “must see.” Why am I worried? Why am I frightened about the prospects of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter? Because oftentimes, film criticism boils down to eight simple words: “That’s not how I would have done it.” And this is exactly how I would have done it.
There’s a very good chance that this isn’t going to make a dime.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter respects history, or at least the history you remember from your high school textbooks. Parts of the story – not many, mind you – almost play like a Frank Capra movie, or a scene out of one of my favorite biopics, Young Mr. Lincoln (in which John Ford also fudged the truth just to get a good story out of the iconic figure). There’s a sweet moment where Mary Todd, before she became Mary Todd Lincoln, takes off the Great Emancipator’s top hat and uses it as a footstool to kiss him. It’s absolutely adorable, endearing, romantic. The personal story of Abraham Lincoln and the broad sweep of history alike are treated with as much respect as Hollywood can generally muster. They just happen to have vampires shoved into them.
As a young boy, Abraham Lincoln pisses off a slave-owner played by Marton Csokas, who turns out to be a vampire. Csokas is responsible for the mysterious illness that takes the life of Lincoln’s mother, inspiring – in the early years, before history was paying too much attention – the future president to devote his life to revenge. Under the tutelage of a mysterious benefactor played by Dominic Cooper, young Mr. Lincoln acquires superhuman strength, kung fu woodcutting abilities and the knowledge of how vampires work. The rules this time state that vampires can be killed with silver, can walk in the daylight but don’t like it very much, and support the South in the upcoming Civil War because slavery provides them with fresh human livestock. Lincoln spends half the film killing them one-by-one, and then the second half as a President whose crusade against the injustices of slavery has the added benefit of ruining the vampires’ free ride in the United States.
What Timur Bekmambetov, a director whose previous films were scatterbrained, scattershot and often not very good, manages to pull off with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is pretty miraculous. He balances the sacred nature of his hero with hyperbolic action sequences that only exalt the respected historical figure further. It’s hard not to respect Abraham Lincoln for getting America past one of its darkest chapters, so seeing him slay an army of nosferatu single-handed in luxuriously speed-ramped action sequences doesn’t even seem like too much of a stretch. He’s culturally accepted as a “Great Man,” so it’s not an enormous leap to accept him as a badass. The movie only goes batsh*t insane when the action sequences do, giving the heroes and the important real-life events that surround them a wide berth that allows both to play their strengths in equal measure. If the drama hadn’t been handled with a measured hand the outlandish set pieces would have been painfully awkward to sit through. While the film eventually feels a little exhausting, particularly in the protracted but impressive finale, it works as well as this material possibly could.
But at its heart, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is still profoundly silly. The 16th President still twirls a woodcutting ax with the elaborate grace of a young (or old) Gordon Liu, and the film surrounding that ridiculous image expects you to take that seriously. The audience in my theater loved it, even though sidelong glances revealed that half the time they were shaking their head in disbelief that any motion picture would attempt to pull this kind of thing off in the first place. The only sane reaction to many of the plot points, set pieces and historical cameos is a long, smirking sigh or at least quiet chuckle at how absurd the whole notion is. But a split second later, thanks to some really expert filmmaking, you already set that aside because the film never winks at the camera or asks to be accepted ironically.
It’s a sincere motion picture, which is why it works, and why I’m terrified that audiences might think it’s “bad” just because it’s such a contradictory premise. Mark my words, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is not bad at all. In fact, it’s the first great blockbuster we’ve had this summer since The Avengers. Don’t confuse the film’s absurd notions for actual absurdity. This is the greatest kind of folly, and the possibly sweetest love note any president has ever had on film. And it kicks total ass.