Honest to Goodness
The first thing you should know about Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is that it's not stupid. Its release date and action-packed trailers make it seem like a goofy spectacle based on a "What If..." joke, but director Timur Bekmambetov infuses his kick-ass diversion into historical fiction with ideas, heart, and genuine visual panache. A few minor story details kept me from absolutely loving this movie.
First, some perspective.
Four years ago, a hurricane of incredibly negative reviews kept me from seeing Bekmambetov's Wanted in the theatre. Months later, some friends talked me into watching it on video, and I've never forgiven myself for missing that big-screen epic. Mass opinion of the movie has only grown harsher, but I still defend the assassins-led-by-a-mystical-loom flick as solid, engaging entertainment with more on its mind than cool explosions and slow-mo bullet dodges.
Where that film celebrated entropy and the horrible attitudes of its characters, Abraham Lincoln is earnest to a "T". Sure, Seth Grahame-Smith's screenplay (adapted from his own novel) has our sixteenth president decapitating vampires with acrobatic axe moves, but he's not a monosyllabic action hero. His mythology is more or less in line with Lincoln's actual biography and the do-gooder legend that sprung from it; all he's done is inject a super-secret side story that informs key events in American history.
Benjamin Walker plays Lincoln as a young law student who is at once idealistic about his country's future (slavery is a barbaric practice that has to go) and consumed by vengeance. His mother was killed by a mysterious figure sent by slimy businessman Jack Barts (Marton Csokas) as payback for a job-site scuffle involving a slave. Young Abraham tried to shield his black friend, Will, from being whipped. His father stepped in and the whole family was fired. Mr. Lincoln vowed to take care of Barts, but his efforts came too late.
Years on, Abraham meets a mysterious bachelor named Henry (Dominic Cooper), who tells him that Barts isn't just a dangerous scumbag--he's a vampire; hence, the super-human pummeling Lincoln receives when he fails to take out his target. Henry agrees to train Abraham in the ways of the vampire hunter, but warns him that theirs is a life of solitude--no friends, no wives, no grand career aspirations.
There's a lot more plot stuffed into the film's hour-and-forty-five-minute run-time, which I don't want to spoil. The broad strokes involve Henry's true identity and intentions, and the revelation of his mortal enemy, Adam (Rufus Sewell), who dreams of a day when vampires no longer live in the shadows of society. His kind is closer than many other movie bloodsuckers: Abraham Lincoln's monsters are children of the night and daytime, making for several tricky who-can-be-trusted scenarios (Grahame-Smith makes up for his Twilight-esque ret-conning of the vampire mythos with some new weaknesses that pose their own awesome challenges).
This overabundance of story is the film's one great weakness. Its woozy, expanding and contracting narrative that drove me crazy. The first half hour is fun and intriguing, and gives the characters plenty of time to breathe. Soon, twists and turns pile up, only to be added to and multiplied; soon, we're barrelling along to a late-film development that turns out to be the main plot. Not that this is a bad thing; I found the set-up and character work to be perfect building blocks to the actual threat that Lincoln and his friends must defeat. But Grahame-Smith sacrifices clarity in some cases for the sake of skipping to key beats.
For example, when Lincoln first meets Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), she's engaged to snobby politician Stephen Douglas (Alan Tudyk). We're meant to believe that part of the story will involve her leaving Douglas for the honest, bright-eyed kid--perhaps even resulting in another revenge plot; instead, we skip ahead like chapter searches on a blu-ray through their dating, engagement, and marriage. When Lincoln gets on his knee to propose, I half-expected him to bump into another ring on his beloved's finger.
The worst example of confusing character material is Joshua Speed's (Jimmi Simpson) arc. He enters the film as the owner of a drug store who takes Lincoln in as a tenant and employee. When Lincoln introduces him to the grownup version of Will (Anthony Mackie), Speed turns up his nose, suggesting that his new stock boy might have some social obstacles to overcome when making friends in Springfield. But, no: two scenes later, Speed and Will are carrying on like buddies. Worse yet, Speed turns on his allies late in the film--only to reveal himself as a double agent (or a double-double agent?). Given more time and story, this could have been a cool twist; as it stands, Speed is simply a walking, talking plot point.
Call me crazy, but I think these little holes could have easily been filled with the time saved by cutting out Lincoln's jumping-across-stampeding-horses chase scene. But I digress...
Fortunately, the story elements that work really work. Lincoln's relationship with Mary is played at first like a romantic comedy, and then as a straight-up drama. He shields his work from her so completely that the relationship spawns a different kind of movie from the undead-slicing action stuff. Their chemistry reminded me of Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed in It's a Wonderful Life; their arc as a couple encompasses a lifetime and sees them grappling with the heaviest issue that parents can face. If you take the vampire element away from this film, it's still a solid coming-of-political-age movie about an idealistic couple in love.
What I love most about Abraham Lincoln is that Grahame-Smith and Bekmambetov use their Big, Dumb Summer Movie platform as a Trojan horse for lofty ideas and gripping storytelling. This is a truly patriotic movie that doesn't for a second come off as hokey. The filmmakers explore themes of nobility and the difficulty of standing up to overwhelming power in defense of justice. The vampirism-as-human-bondage metaphor plays incredibly well, and it's so refreshing to see a big-screen superhero who doesn't have to resort to one-liners to seem cool. Lincoln knows he's a nerd and a bookworm, but he also knows he has truth on his side (the insane axe-wielding skills don't hurt, either).
I can't be sure, but I suspect Bekmambetov spends so much time letting us get to know Lincoln in order to get the audience fully on-board for one of the most ridiculous yet engaging climax set-pieces I've ever seen. Several characters engage in an axe-swapping fight. On top of a speeding train. That's headed towards rickety tracks overlooking a chasm. That have just been set on fire.
Most of this, I imagine, was done against green screen, but the choreography, editing, and performances so effectively sold the reality of the scene that I didn't even consider the scale of its silliness until after leaving the theatre. Towards the end of Abraham Lincoln, I wasn't just watching a boring showdown with an inevitable conclusion; I was emotionally invested in this team of friends who I really wanted to see triumph over evil.
I've heard that the film strays quite a bit from the novel. I can't speak to that because I haven't read it. But Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, for the most part, plays like a book put to film. Its characters are rich and interesting, with complex motives and even more complex relationships. The details of Grahame-Smith and Bekmambetov's alternate universe are so fully realized, from the costuming to the set design, that I didn't once think I was watching some cheesy action flick about the guy on the penny killing vampires. Benjamin Walker gave me a hero-president that I would love to believe in, a reminder of what Americans are supposed to embody. His Abraham Lincoln is the centerpiece of a flawed but magically rare summer film that lit up my heart and let my brain stay on, too.