"Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter": Those four words, strung together in that order, sound like a lot of fun, don't they?
It's a totally ridiculous premise, this notion that the 16th U.S. president lived a whole `nother secret life, prowling about at night, seeking out bloodsuckers. But it's a creative one, and it should have provided the basis for a free-wheeling, campy good time.
Unfortunately, director Timur Bekmambetov and writer Seth Grahame-Smith, adapting his own best-selling novel, take this concept entirely too seriously. What ideally might have been playful and knowing is instead uptight and dreary, with a visual scheme that's so fake and cartoony, it depletes the film of any sense of danger.
Bekmambetov, the Kazakhstan-born director whose 2008 action hit "Wanted" was such a stylish, sexy thrill, weirdly stages set pieces that are muddled and hard to follow - a horse stampede, for example, or the climactic brawl aboard a runaway train. The murky (and needless) 3-D conversion doesn't help matters, and it's a waste of what was probably some lovely cinematography from five-time Oscar nominee Caleb Deschanel. He also keeps going back to some of the same gimmicky uses of 3-D, including slo-mo slashings and beheadings that send black vampire blood spurting from the screen; the repetition of this trick produces the same numbing effect that it had in Tarsem Singh's "Immortals" last year.
The tall, lanky Benjamin Walker certainly looks the part as the title character (he also looks distractingly like a young Liam Neeson, and actually played a younger version of Neeson in 2004's "Kinsey") but there's no oomph to his performance, no "there" there. He doesn't exude any confidence or charisma, either as he becomes increasingly skilled in vanquishing his foes or as he succeeds in wooing the sophisticated (and engaged) Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). And once he becomes the Lincoln we actually know - with the beard and the hat and that big, famous speech - it merely feels like he's playing dress-up rather than embodying the spirit of a towering historical figure.
His story begins in childhood when, according to this revisionist lore, Lincoln's mother was killed by a vampire before his very eyes. He seeks revenge as an adult, but doesn't know exactly what he's doing or whom he's dealing with. Enter veteran vampire hunter Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper), a debauched and flamboyant Brit who helps him hone the tools he'll need but who has an ulterior motive of his own. (Even the training montage, a staple of any movie about a warrior's transformation, feels oddly restrained.)
After wielding his silver-tipped axe on some practice targets - these evil fiends roam all around us, you know - Lincoln is finally ready to take on his nemeses: vampire businessman Jack Barts (Marton Csokas) and the genteel Southerner Adam (Rufus Sewell), who's sort of the king of Vampire Nation. (He gets some help from Anthony Mackie as his childhood friend and Jimmi Simpson as the shopkeeper Lincoln worked for in Springfield.)
At the same time, he's kinda thinking he might want to jump into politics during this tumultuous time in America. And so you have this intensifying struggle between humans and the living dead playing out against the backdrop of the North and South on the brink of Civil War. The notion that the horrors of slavery should be placed on a parallel with monster horror as entertainment is really rather distasteful, punctuated by the sight of vampires getting gored on a battlefield with Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address in the background.
But that's nothing compared to the line about being late for the theater that Mrs. Lincoln hollers at her husband toward the end. Even when "Abraham Lincoln" finally gives in and tries to loosen up, it gets it all wrong.
"Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," a 20th Century Fox release, is rated R for violence throughout and brief sexuality. Running time: 105 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.