With a title like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, you should have a pretty clear idea of the narrative going in, though apparently the filmmakers had murkier notions. Directed by Russian action maven Timur Bekmanbetov (Wanted), and incomprehensibly adapted by Seth Grahame Smith from his own hit novel, the film takes an irresistibly daffy premise and buries it under smoke, dirt, noise and CGI bloodbaths.
The first conceit here, and there are many, is that the 16th president of the United States (played here by Benjamin Walker) kept a diary of his second, nocturnal career, and narrates his slaying adventures in his own voice. His rustic log cabin boyhood is shattered when his mother is slain before his eyes by an unholy ghoul, and the earnest young man sets about avenging her murder by any means necessary. Over the years, Abe hones his prodigious mental and physical gifts for his lonely crusade, but he doesn't understand the true nature of his enemies until he meets a roguish vamp hunter named Henry Sturges, played with hammy élan by Dominic Cooper. Henry provides Abe with training, info and the names of fresh kill targets, slowly revealing the bigger picture of the undead threat. We learn that the entire Southern slave trade is there to enrich the vampires and their greedy human allies, and to provide the bloodsuckers with a cheap, disposable food source.
When not dispatching monsters with his trusty ax, Abe, in the style of Peter Parker, has to juggle his Springfield shop clerk job, law studies, a burgeoning political career and his growing relationship with an enchanting socialite named Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Lincoln has a rival for her affections in slavery advocate Stephen Douglas, though we get cheated out of seeing their legendary debates, which might have been amusing with a supernatural twist. Sadly the script keeps taking shortcuts and omitting historical details or real ethical questions, in favor of dizzying, gore-drenched action scenes. The book cleverly injected vampire myth into every triumph and tragedy of Lincoln's familiar biography, but the screenplay tends to erase facts and replace them with action flick tropes.
Every piece of vampire fiction is forced to rewrite the rules to some degree. In this instance, sunlight is merely annoying, but silver is lethal, and the exciting, overheated finale involves a secret Union shipment of silver bullets to the front line, and a spectacular fight aboard a runaway train headed over a burning trestle.
Bekmanbetov never met a slow-motion shot he didn't love, and his frenetic, overwrought fight choreography is arresting but ultimately tiresome when matched with a sepia-tone-and-3-D process that creates an ugly, eye-straining image. The director also keeps things deadly serious, to avoid being campy, but when you recast the Great Emancipator as the Great Decapitator, it's probably too late to play it safe.
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