“We are all slaves to something,” says an evildoer in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
Honest Abe (Benjamin Walker) is not deterred by this platitude in his mission to rid America of its conspiracy of bloodsuckers—whether political or literal. That slavery is a parasitic infestation feeding off the democratic life force of the new republic, however, isn’t exactly uppermost on the mind of young Abe, either. He transforms himself from a farm boy to a righteous avenger in memory of his mother, who was bled to death, and learns to act for the greater good through a mysterious friend with a sensitivity to light (Dominic Cooper). Law school is something Abe does when he’s not beheading vampires with an ax that he swings like a ninja wood cutter.
The film is adapted from the best-selling graphic novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, but Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter loses most of its preposterous brio onscreen. Though the faux-historical settings add some intrigue, the film’s murky, almost sepia-toned palette (which should’ve been confined to the opening childhood sequence) becomes oppressive, and the action sequences, though inventive, are choppy and chaotic.
The film noticeably struggles between being a credible alternative history and a campy satire of self-serious do-gooders such as the titular hero. Perhaps this internal divide resulted from Smith co-writing the script, or more likely, it’s the responsibility of Russian director-choreographer Timur Bekmambetov, who as the auteur of the neo-noir, sci-fi fantasy thrillers Night Watch and Day Watch would seem to be the perfect director for the job. Yet despite a bravura chase scene in the midst of a stampede and some creepy interference by the colonial lord of all vampires (an underutilized Rufus Sewell), the killings become routine, further diminished by the mechanized pacing—inexplicable considering the director’s flair in his Russian movies.
As for Abe, Walker has the right physicality and can be commended for playing it straight. His resemblance to Liam Neeson (Walker’s big break came as playing the younger version of Neeson’s Alfred Kinsey) is an unfortunate distraction, but there are worse, such as the switches in tone from heightened realism with painted backgrounds (giving the ending a lovely touch of fatalism) to the comics-style carnage of zombie-like hordes of CGI vampires. It may have been Abe who saved the Union, but in this misguided mash-up, it’s the versatile Cooper and the undead partisan he plays who holds the movie together.