When you book Vin Diesel for a leading role, there are some things you come to expect: a certain thick-necked, silverback muscularity, a rumbling baritone that enters your ears shortly after your gut, and approximately four facial expressions. The man’s name is literally Vin Diesel. Vin Diesel! It could never have been otherwise.
In The Last Witch Hunter, Diesel plays Kaulder, an immortal witch hunter cursed to spend his years rumbling menacingly at passers-by like a pissed off subwoofer. Normally the realm of the rakish and the slim, Vin Diesel imbues his witch hunter with the kind of sentient sirloin bulk that makes previous witch hunters seem namby pamby in comparison – a witch hunter in a true urban fantasy style. Urban fantasy is a rich seam for modern filmmakers, produced with the greatest élan by Guillerme Del Toro in his excellent Hellboy movies, which are a natural counterpoint to Breck Eisner’s Last Witch Hunter.
The core of a strong urban fantasy is the world-building, and the way in which we see the interweaving of magic and blunt reality. Del Toro’s Elf King holds autumn court beneath the rusting pipes of the New York underground, while Hellboy blasts demons with a heavy duty handgun. In Kaulder’s universe, the witches and their entirely human looking descendants have formed an uneasy detente with the rest of the world, swearing off malicious magic use and generally keeping themselves to themselves. While we are treated to a look inside a witch’s bar (it’s like a normal bar, but the cocktails are a little more gothic), what The Last Witch Hunter lacks is an immersion into this fantasy world that goes beyond the shallow. In the opening sequence we see a witch using her magic in a flower shop to make her garland bloom – a tantalising hint of the kind of worldbuilding that sustains a film like this – but this underworld is not paid the attention it deserves.
The Last Witch Hunter is surprisingly star studded – Elijah Wood makes an appearance as a callow priest helping Kaulder out and coughing on the raw clouds of testosterone left in his wake, and Rose Leslie is friendly witch and ‘dreamwalker’ Chloe who finds herself caught up in Kaulder’s narrative force when the first of the Big Bads set fire to her bar. Michael Caine plays the 36th Dolan, Kaulder’s ageing helper and confidante, a warm and pleasantly sarcastic niche he inhabits so effortlessly it’s almost a surprise not to hear him refer to Kaulder as “Master Wayne”.
Never quite managing the impetus to become the kind of action film usually described as “rollicking” nor the depth to satisfy serious fantasy fans, The Last Witch Hunter‘s main charm lies in watching ‘Trev Unleaded’ himself storming around and glowering at things. Really, who among us would ever deny themselves that?