'Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter' swings mediocre ax

It sounds like something cooked up on a ratty futon between bong hits during a History channel marathon. (You know, back when History still cared about history.)

"Dude. Duuuude. What if instead of chopping down cherry trees, Abe Lincoln chopped down vampires?"

"I don't think that was Lincoln."

"Dude. Nobody cares. (Long exhale.) Hey, maybe we could blow the crap out of a bunch of stuff and bring back those crazy, slo-mo fights like they had in 'The Matrix'!"

That sound you hear is the world's historians weeping over "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," which has the same awkward, combative relationship with history as, say, "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure." Or Sarah Palin.

The movie suggests two moments in young Abe's life molded his outlook on the world: seeing the abuse suffered by his best friend, a black child named Will, and witnessing his mother's death at the hands - well, fangs - of a vampire.

Having grown into a strapping young rail-splitter, Abe (Benjamin Walker of Broadway's "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson") seeks vengeance against said vampire, only to find himself seriously overmatched.

He's rescued by the mysterious Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper, "Captain America's" Howard Stark), who takes an interest in Abe. Before long, he's mentoring Abe in the ways of killing vampires and teaching him to channel his rage to fell a tree, turning it into an explosion of splinters, in a single blow. After an early pistol mishap, it's that ax, with its silver-coated blade, that Abe uses to strike down the vampires handpicked by Henry.

Feeling confident in his skills, Abe sets off for Illinois, a slayer in a stovepipe, to meet his destiny.

All the important players are there: his eventual love Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), confidant Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson) and political rival Stephen A. Douglas (Alan Tudyk). He also reconnects with his (purely fictional) childhood friend, Will Johnson (Anthony Mackie).

Following some early retribution, though, Abe puts his ax away for decades in favor of pursuing his other passion, equality for all men, through politics.

That is until his two worlds collide with an army of undead Confederates marching on Gettysburg. Because, as every schoolchild knows, the root causes of the Civil War were slavery, states' rights, the differing needs of agrarian vs. industrial economies, and vampirism.

Screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith, adapting his best-selling novel, adds his own rules to the vampire mythology, which at this point could fill a bookshelf. Or at least a Paul Simon-style song. ("You can hack 'em with an ax, Max. You can shoot 'em in the head, Ted.")

But, having also scripted this summer's lackluster "Dark Shadows" remake, it's time for him to step away from the undead.

Director Timur Bekmambetov ("Wanted") brings some much needed visual flair, especially in the aerial acrobatics of the fight scenes. But he never makes good use of the needless 3-D, and he saves most of the flash for two scenes: a clever chase through a sea of stampeding horses and the climactic battle aboard a train.

At times, the movie has the look of a serious-minded Civil War epic, but those scenes are quickly followed by some random, Grade A nuttiness. And there's a silly, primordial thrill that comes from seeing our grizzled 16th president spinning, twisting and flipping through the air, working his way through vampires like a bewhiskered buzzsaw.

But the movie rarely winks at the audience, rarely embraces its inherent lunacy, instead taking itself fairly seriously for something called "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter."

It's going to be interesting to see whether pieces of its narrative end up working their way into our collective memory - or at least into future book reports.

But "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" shouldn't be blamed for muddling history. (Hey, look! Harriet Tubman!)

It should be blamed for not enjoying itself enough while muddling history.


Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@ reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567.


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