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Posts Tagged ‘Rose Leslie’

A lot of people involved in the film business are wont to get a bit precious about it, going on about artistic integrity, following their creative instincts,, stretching themselves and their talent, and so on. And this is often a laudable approach to take. The question is whether it excuses the rather disdainful approach sometimes taken to people who are quite happy to treat the business as a business and simply concentrate on maximising returns, more high-falutin’ concerns be damned.

Now, I’m not suggesting that Vin Diesel has no artistic integrity – anyone who’s seen the videos revealing the method approach he takes to playing Groot in the Marvel movies will know this is not the case – but he does seem to be an actor and producer who has figured out that his films are going to do better if he just sticks to making sequels and franchise movies. Of the twenty or so films where he’s played the lead since making Pitch Black, there are eight Fast & Furious movies, three as Riddick, and two xXx films, the balance consisting of before-he-was-famous obscurities like Knockaround Guys and A Man Apart, his mid-2000s dabble with full-on comedy (The Pacifier and Find Me Guilty), and stabs at other kinds of genre movie such as Babylon AD and the recent Bloodshot. What is perhaps telling is that Babylon AD came out in 2008 and Bloodshot earlier this year: in between these two, almost every single movie led by Diesel was from one of his franchises. It’s not that people don’t go to see Diesel in other films: he just doesn’t make other films.

The sole exception, and thus potentially quite an interesting entry in the Diesel filmography, is Breck Eisner’s 2015 movie The Last Witch Hunter. I say it is potentially quite interesting as a bit of an outlier where Vin is concerned, not because of any particular merits of the film itself, because these are marginal as we shall see.

The movie opens in the twelfth century, with a group of warriors venturing into the fabled Tree of Evil to kill the Witch Queen whose plague has devastated their land (there is a lot of Implicit Capitalisation in this movie). I was mildly diverted by the realisation that this sort of magic pagan villainess has almost become a stock character in (usually bad) fantasy movies – I was reminded of the Milla Jovovich character in the last Hellboy, and also Rebecca Ferguson in The Kid Who Would Be King – but much more distracted by the beard and hairpiece they have glued onto Diesel to make him look like a man from the dark ages.

You know, I honestly can’t decide if this is a good look for Vin or not. Initially it just seems quite funny in the same way that seeing him with dreadlocks at the start of Chronicles of Riddick draws a smile, but this may just be because Diesel is such a famous baldy. If he kept the hair for the whole movie perhaps we would get used to it, but it is just a bit of set dressing for the prologue: soon he is waving a flaming sword around and shouting things like ‘Fire and steel!’ The Witch Queen is briskly dealt with, but has the last laugh, as she curses Vin with eternal youth and immortality (not, you might think, the most onerous things to be cursed with).

Well, we skip forward to the present day where Vin has adopted his usual shiny-scalped mien and is working for an organisation named the Axe and the Cross (which looks very much like the Catholic Church, to be honest). It turns out there is a population of witches with magical powers living unseen alongside regular folks, and it’s Vin’s job as – all together now – the Last Witch Hunter to make sure they behave themselves. Already the astute viewer will be having thoughts along the lines of ‘Hang on, this is Highlander meets Hellboy meets Harry Potter meets Blade meets Men in Black.’

Such thoughts are dispelled with the appearance of Michael Caine (yes, really) as Vin’s best friend and confidante, Dolan the 36th. It is almost instantly apparent that Caine has been hired to reprise his performance as Alfred the Butler from the Christopher Nolan Batman films, but Caine does his best with the role despite the fact he is required to deliver dialogue like ‘I trust you were able to retrieve the weather runes without complications?’ It seems like Caine is just here for a cameo, anyway, as he is on the verge of retirement and due to be replaced by the youthful Dolan the 37th (Elijah Wood). However, the elder Dolan is fatally clobbered by black magic and it is up to Vin and the new guy to avenge their friend! But could there be a deeper conspiracy at work…?

It strikes me there would be potential in a horror-comedy buddy-movie starring Vin Diesel and Elijah Wood as mismatched occult cops, but sadly The Last Witch Hunter is a Vin Diesel vehicle through and through, and Wood is stuck in a very subordinate role. The Vin Dieseliness of this film is so complete that it is apparently based on one of the characters the big man used to play in his Dungeons & Dragons games. (I feel if we could get transcripts of Vin’s old RPG sessions we might gain many insights into his creative identity.) Then again, one inevitably finds oneself wondering about the quality of Vin’s role-playing, as this is not a film which suggests he has a great range as an actor which he is keeping quiet about. As a reluctant supernatural warrior and man out of time, he gives exactly the same smirking, swaggering, smug performance that seems to be his default setting when not playing Dominic Toretto. He actually makes Christopher Lambert’s turn in a vaguely similar role in Highlander look nuanced and thoughtful, and Lambert was acting in a language not his own.

That said, nobody but Caine (and, just possibly, Wood) emerges from this film with any credit when it comes to acting, nor is the rest of it any more distinguished than I have suggested: this is a hugely derivative film, pinching indiscriminately from other action-fantasy films, and not doing anything to distinguish itself. It kind of functions at the most basic level, but just trundles along without ever becoming interesting or developing a life of its own: copious use of CGI does not in and of itself make a film interesting, although it does contain a moment where Vin delivers his trademark flying headbutt to a giant wooden insect (the film sorely needs more of this kind of thing).

Only the mystifying elements of the film make it distinctive: for instance, Rose Leslie turns up as a friendly witch who ends up helping Vin out, and you think, aha, here is the love interest. It certainly seems to be written that way, but for some reason the relationship remains very understated for no obvious reason. I know it is still the received wisdom that inter-racial relationships are probably best avoided in commercial movies (cf Will Smith’s non-romance with Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Gemini Man as another example), but is that really the reason for it? I suppose it is an example of what they call creative ambiguity.

I suppose it is an example of Vin Diesel’s star power that despite all of this, and some unfriendly reviews when it was released, The Last Witch Hunter was not actually a bomb, just about making enough money for a sequel to seem like a viable option. Before the world shut down, Diesel announced they were going through with it, but I suppose we shall just have to wait and see what the cinematic landscape looks like when the current situation eventually resolves itself. Personally, my fondness for Diesel remains undiminished, but I’m not in any hurry to see more outings for these characters.

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