The legend of America is closely intertwined with the legend of Abraham Lincoln. Even the most nit-picky historian will credit his leadership through the Civil War with saving the United States, and every school-aged child can tell you of the humble, log-cabin origins of our greatest president.
Since this man’s incredible, larger-than-life deeds echo throughout history, it’s not that big of a leap to imagine the Great Emancipator spending his nights slaying bloodthirsty vampires. OK, fine, a medium-sized leap.
This is the premise of the surprisingly effective, absurdly titled movie “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” With a title like that, you would expect a goofy romp, but instead, the movie plays it straight, and because of its wild set-up the filmmakers are able to get away with murder.
Any movie that can make you buy our 16th president as an ax-wielding, undead-killing badass must be doing something right.
Mirroring the life of the historical Lincoln, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” imagines that instead of illness claiming Lincoln’s mother when he was just a boy, she was instead the victim of a vampire attack.
Abe (gamely played by relative newcomer Benjamin Walker, who also just happens to be Meryl Streep’s son-in-law) waits until he grows up to seek vengeance on the vampire who killed his mother. Walker certainly proves he has the chops to carry a movie and might be at his best as the familiar, aged, presidential Lincoln (where he bears a striking resemblance to Liam Neeson).
Being ill-equipped to take on immortal killing machines, Abraham is rescued from his ill-plotted revenge by Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper) who takes the future president under his wing and teaches him the art of vampire hunting.
Skilled in the deadly arts via training montage and equipped with a silver-bladed axe, Abraham travels to Springfield, Ill., with orders from Henry to kill various vampires lurking about.
All the familiar beats of Lincoln’s life are hit as he transitions from storekeeper to lawyer to politician, befriends general store owner Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson), and courts the comely Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).
Abraham uncovers a sinister plot by vampire leader Adam (Rufus Sewell) to exploit slavery not just for labor but for lunch as well and to claim the country in the name of the undead. Important historical note kids: this doesn’t mean that in the fall you can get away with saying on your final exam that vampires started the Civil War.
“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” was written by Seth Grahame-Smith who also wrote the best-selling novel on which the movie is based. Grahame-Smith manages to avoid simply being satisfied with chucking vampires into Lincoln’s biography and constructs a compelling if not overly-familiar little narrative.
Russian director Timur Bekmanbetov (best known for directing “Wanted”) gives the film a distinct visual style and boasts a surprisingly keen eye for historical accuracy. He also shines during the action set pieces and while he may rely a little too much on slow motion, one showdown that takes place in the middle of a horse stampede might be the best action sequence you’ll see all year.
In spite of all the praise I’ve heaped upon it, it is important to remember that “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is completely ridiculous. That said, it is well made and you are guaranteed not to see anything else like it for a long while.
It’s sad to say, but in a summer awash with sequels and reboots, a movie that is both effective and original is a rare treat, no matter how many history teachers it pushes into early retirement.
“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is rated R for violence throughout and brief sexuality.