It’s difficult to believe that “The Last Witch Hunter” is being billed as an “original.” True, it’s not adapted from a video game or a graphic novel, but it’s so cliché-ridden (not to mention absurd) that might as well be; and though it was penned—presumably independently—by Cory Goodman, Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless (hardly a ringing endorsement; their past work includes “Priest” and “Dracula Untold”)—its premise has much in common with the recent Jeff Bridges flop “The Seventh Son,” in which another medieval witch-hunter had to renew battle with a queen witch he’d earlier defeated. Instead of keeping to the Middle Ages it brings its hero into the twenty-first century, however, and rather than having him search for an apprentice it makes him immortal. It’s equally incredible that the picture is being seriously mentioned as the start of a franchise. Despite the presence of a cathedral among the settings and a couple of priests in the cast, this hapless disaster doesn’t have a prayer of getting past a first installment.
The tale begins in the fourteenth century, when plague is decimating society—an epidemic caused, we’re told, by the Witch Queen (Julie Engelbrecht), who’s out to destroy humanity. Luckily she’s targeted by a band of hirsute warriors that includes Kaulder (Vince Diesel, wearing a hilarious beard), who takes down the Queen “with sword and fire.” In perishing, however, she curses Kaulder with immortality.
Cut to the present, where a now beardless Kaulder is still involved in the war against black magic, the great warrior of a society (Axe and Cross) in which he’s had a succession of clerical helpers called, for some reason, Dolans; the current one is Dolan 36 (Michael Caine, looking understandably bemused throughout, the occasional slight smile presumably arising from his anticipation of a coming paycheck). In short order the elderly priest winds up in a coffin, the victim of some evil witchery Kaulder must now seek to unravel with the help of Dolan 37, a callow young cleric played with a perpetual deer-in-the-headlights look by Elijah Wood.
The deceased elder Dolan left behind a clue that Kaulder latches onto, instructing him to remember his own brush with death when he killed the Queen. That takes him to a bar run by a spunky white witch named Chloe (Rose Leslie, lending a touch of brisk humor to a movie that really needs it) who can cast a spell to help him recall the event in detail. It must be said that the New York witch bar scene was handled much more agreeably in “Bell Book and Candle” back in 1958, but in any event the ceremony is interrupted by an evil warlock with malevolent designs (Olafur Darri Olafsson). That sends Kaulder and company, now including Chloe, on a quest to prevent none other than the resurrection of the Queen Witch and the end of humankind.
It would be a pointless, not to say tedious, business to catalogue the various twists and turns along the way to round two between Kaulder and the Queen Witch. Suffice it to say that the contorted plot is replete with oddball characters (a blind baker, a witches’ council) and complications that are illogical even by the low standards of this kind of genre nonsense. (The Queen’s resuscitation, for example, is explained by a past action that makes no sense from any perspective, and the implications—which necessitate locating a very important item—aren’t followed up at all.) But instead of trying to find a way of making all the mystical gobbledygook cohere, even if in some weird parody of sense, the picture instead treats us to such scenes as the visits by Kaulder to his walk-in closet of witch-fighting paraphernalia, which are nothing more than a visual cliché reminiscent of virtually every spy movie of the last several decades. (There’s also an interlude with a hookah-smoking witch that comes across as completely gratuitous.)
Then there are the visual effects, which are numerous but among the least special of any big-budget spectacle in memory. They’re all fashioned on the most extravagant level but clumsily executed, and they’re not at all helped by Dean Semler’s cinematography, which gives them—and virtually all else—a murky, gray look that’s welcome only when it helps to obscure the action. The jerky editing by Dean Zimmerman and Chris Lebenzon suggests that some plot elements were left on the cutting-room floor, but in this case that’s hardly objectionable; Steve Jablonsky’s music is incessantly busy and instantly forgettable.
Just to be a mite picky: it seems that Kaulder isn’t really the last witch hunter, but the only witch hunter. But it’s certainly likely that the movie will be the last “Witch Hunter.” Diesel had better gather together all the Dolans he can find to pray that the “Fast and Furious” franchise never runs out of gas, because if this is representative of the alternative, his career may just end in fire and sword, too.