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There’s a point where a star becomes so bankable that he can basically get any film made that he wants. This is how albatrosses like Johnny Depp’s “The Lone Ranger” and Mike Myers’ “The Love Guru” came to theaters, where they crashed and burned with critical loathing and dismal box-office returns. Now, thanks to the global phenomenon that is the “Fast and Furious” franchise, Vin Diesel has made his dream project, and potential albatross: “The Last Witch Hunter.” However, unlike Depp and Myers, Diesel didn’t lose sight of what audiences demand of him.
It certainly helps that Diesel doesn’t co-opt another culture so he can don a quirky bird hat or enact shenanigans in a Sherwani. But the real difference between those blunders and “The Last Witch Hunter” is that you can feel Diesel’s passion for the picture in every frame. Die-hard fans know of the action star’s longtime love of the role-playing game “Dungeons & Dragons.” And this — in particular, a dark elf witch hunter he favored playing — was the inspiration for this fantasy adventure. By watching this movie you’re basically watching Diesel live his dream. And as those who follow his Facebook account are well aware, Diesel’s enthusiasm is downright infectious.
Directed by Breck Eisner, “The Last Witch Hunter” begins 800 years ago, when a burly, bearded warrior named Kaulder (Diesel, naturally) storms the stronghold of a plague-spewing coven. While his brothers in arms battle wicked minions, this brave brute dives into a fateful showdown with the Witch Queen (Julie Engelbrecht). After piercing her black heart with his flaming blade, she uses her dying breath to curse him to eternal life. Kaulder cannot die, and so spends the next eight centuries instilling a peace between witches and humans. Basically, if the witches play nice so will he. But if they break the rules and harm a human, they’ll be carted off by a sentinel made of metal, stone and bone to the caverns of an underground prison buried deep beneath St. Patrick’s Cathedral in modern-day Manhattan.
But this uneasy peace is shattered when Kaulder’s colleague/longtime friend (Michael Caine) is attacked. Suspecting bigger trouble is brewing, he enlists the help of an eager priest (Elijah Wood) and a good witch (Rose Leslie) to conquer whatever lurks in the shadows.
It’s a rich story with a mythology that makes a lot more sense than certain other action epics of late. Kaulder’s quest is succinctly established, and then a crew of curious characters and distinctive witches are thrown in his path, including a blind baker who has butterflies do his bidding, and a wretched warlock who lures children to his lair with a drool-inducing gummy bear-sprouting tree. Despite its hodgepodge of Pittsburgh location shoots and Manhattan aerial shots, “The Last Witch Hunter” builds a world compelling enough that you want to linger in its darkest corners and witchy brew bars. And the CGI-spawned monsters are satisfyingly sick, with shape-shifting skills and eye-popping spells.
Adding to this adventure’s charms is a supporting cast that boasts fantasy icons like the radiant Leslie (“Game of Thrones”), the exuberant Wood (“The Lord of the Ring”) and the always-great Caine. But of course it’s Diesel who’s the real draw.
In his Middle Ages scenes, he’s almost unrecognizable, draped in battle gear, beard and a gnarly Mohawk. He brandishes his sword with a relish and power that is exhilarating. And while the dialogue is clunky with exposition lines, that’s little problem for the guy who’s made “Fast and the Furious” not just watchable but awesome despite some of the thinnest characters sketched in modern cinema. Sure, there are some laughable lines and some sub-par CGI in “The Last Witch Hunter.” But with sheer star power Diesel makes this movie fun and thrilling.
“The Last Witch Hunter” opens Friday nationwide.