Now, that’s a President. Abraham Lincoln, previously best remembered for the penny, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil War, the Gettysburg Address, the humor, the honesty, and the height, is now re-imagined with all of that plus a rail-splitting ax tipped with silver that he swings like the grand marshall of a marching band to chop off the heads of vampires.
Russian-Kazakh director Timur Bekmambetov is known for hyper-violent films with striking visuals (“Wanted,” “Daywatch,” “Nightwatch”), here working with superstar cinematographer Caleb Deschanel as director of photography, is well suited to telling this story. It is surprisingly absorbing for an idea that sounds like it could easily be all concept and pointy teeth.
We meet young Abe as a boy, risking his life to defend his best friend Will, an African-American boy about to be whipped by the cruel man who oversees the docks. This rebellion gets Abe’s father fired, and also inflicts a more insidious revenge. Those who are familiar enough with Lincoln’s history well enough to know that the mother he loved, Nancy Hanks, died when he was nine will guess what is going to happen when she is stricken with a mysterious illness. Those who expect to see his step-mother, his first love, Anne Rutledge, or more than one of his sons will have to wait for the Steven Spielberg biopic coming out next year. As the title suggests, his one is more about killing vampires in a lot of different settlings, with a lot of spurting blood. In 3D.
At first, it is about revenge. But then Lincoln meets the dissolute but somehow trustworthy Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), who cues up the training montage by telling Lincoln he must learn how to swing his ax with enough force to knock down a tree with one blow — and teaches him to do it by thinking about what he hates most. “It’s quite a feat to kill that which is already dead.” Sturgess warns Lincoln that if he is going to hunt vampires he cannot have any friends or romantic connections. But after Lincoln moves to Springfield, Illinois, he soon has both, with Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson) and pretty Mary Todd (the always-winning Mary Elizabeth Winstead). The head vampire, meaningfully named Adam (Rufus Sewell), is planning to take over America from his decaying plantation in New Orleans. When he invites some of his slaves to a party, it’s not “Mandingo;” it’s “Soylent Green.”
The attempt to weave the vampires into historical events is less gimmicky than it sounds because slavery is so abhorrent it makes more sense that it would require supernatural evil for something so essentially inhumane. But this is all about the fight scenes, and they are striking, even beautiful seen as abstractions, if you stop thinking of them as decapitations and impalings. Like its source material, its effort to straddle genres is sometimes awkward, its storyline overwhelmed by too many action set-pieces. Star Benjamin Walker’s stiff make-up does not allow for much acting. Despite some murkiness from the post-production 3D, the visuals are powerful and the action scenes impressively staged. And it is refreshing to see a politician who is so good at getting things done.
Parents should know that this film includes extended and extremely intense and graphic bloody violence involving vampires with guns, axe, fire, stampede, beheading and impaling, sad deaths of a parent and a child, slavery, brief explicit sexual situations with some nudity and a prostitute, and drinking.
Family discussion: How did the historical facts and characters provide a framework for the story? Why didn’t Lincoln follow Stugess’ advice?
If you like this, try: the director’s other films, “Daywatch,” “Nightwatch,” and “Wanted” and the book by Seth Grahame-Smith — and get ready for the historical Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming film, to be released at the end of the year.