Movie star and action-icon Vin Diesel may look and act like your stereotypical macho tough guy, but any interview with him reveals the soul of the dweebiest 20-sided-die-rolling nerd you’ll likely ever meet. The man loves sci-fi and fantasy and games a lot and that’s really apparent in his latest film The Last Witch Hunter. The movie, which Diesel produced for himself to star in, is in part based on a Dungeons & Dragons (a tabletop role-play game for those not “in the know”) character he created and likes play. This is true passion for material that sets this movie apart from forgettable CGI sword-and-sorcery doldrums like Seventh Son or The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones.
The movie follows Kaulder (Diesel), once part of a war band set to take revenge on the Witch Queen for unleashing the Black Death in medieval times. In defeat, the Witch Queen cursed him to an immortality spent hunting other evil witches with his flaming sword and spellbook. We then cut to the modern era, where our warrior has become a supernatural James Bond, jet-setting around the world and bedding flight attendants, and working with a secret league of Priests, who maintain a peace with witches and magic users. The rules are this: Witches can cast spells and dabble in magic all they want among themselves in their exclusive witch clubs, taverns and local groceries and bakeries (I’m not kidding) but if one gets out of line and harms humans, Kaulder is going to step in and assess whether said mage is due for a polite scolding or a serious butt kicking (we get to see both throughout the movie). Michael Caine plays his wingman. Kaldur is later forced to take his witch hunting a bit more seriously with the help of a novice priest (Elijah Wood), a “good” witch (Rose Leslie) to start a new battle. Cue all manners of geekery when they dive headfirst into world building with “14th level warlocks,” elemental magic and even a Haute Couture fashion label made completely up of age-defying witches.
And why not be stylish? The playful quality in The Last Witch Hunter and the unveiling of the secret world around us is something like a mix of Harry Potter and John Wick. Don’t get me wrong, the shooting style is sub-Network TV quality (I’ve never seen such ugly cinematography outside a Marvel movie), and the poorly rendered CGI-heavy fights go on way, way too long, and some of the mythology-rich back story is impossible to follow, and yet it’s difficult to do anything but smile when Vin Diesel is holding a prop and explaining that “this kind of magic is neutral in nature.” The cast is not going to win the attention of critics but you can tell they’re having a giddy time playing along with Diesel’s Dungeon master scenario. Far better are some of the designs, especially the makeup of the wood-nymph meets Lovecraftian creature Witch Queen. Actress Julie Engelbrecht doesn’t just chew the scenery either, she practically gobbles it whole as she vogues, monologues, and cackles with a relish that’s one part dinner-theater and one part goth drag queen. The visuals aren’t anything that hasn’t been seen of equal quality on late cable but it’s the attitude of the film that sells what probably should just be a “direct-to-video” B-movie as something worth your time.
This movie is very weak on a technical level yet you can feel all the love that Diesel, his co-stars and the filmmakers have for this, the dorkiest blockbuster ever made and that’s the kind of vibe that ultimately makes the movie so enjoyable. Fans of pulpy sword & sorcery like Game of Thrones will love this because it’s sort of like all of the silly parts of those works without any of the pretentious thinking. Make no mistake, this is no Your Highness parody — Vin Diesel is as serious as a druid casting level 5 charm spell on an elfin princess in presenting his immortal warrior as “the chosen One” who brings peace and balance to this realm. And it’s astonishing to have that kind of dedication from our action stars. This is the role Vin Diesel has been aching to share with us probably for his whole life.