I suppose it was bound to happen. The vampire movies have become so ubiquitous that there are no longer any unused vehicles for them to appear in a movie, except……accompanied by a famous historical figure who then becomes an action superhero!
Sure, it’s patently ridiculous. OK, that being said, once you can suspend all disbelief and swallow the premise, the movie itself isn’t that bad.
Benjamin Walker, as Abraham Lincoln, graduated from Juilliard, and has already played Andrew Jackson in a rock musical. He lends such surprising gravitas to this role that we really want for him to be Honest Abe. When he steps up on the stump and makes the rousing speeches and the people cheer, there’s just something thrilling about envisioning the real Abraham Lincoln, out there campaigning somewhere in Illinois, with the country about to be swirled up in the political events that would culminate in the Civil War, which thrust upon the tall, gaunt, rawboned lawyer a greatness he might not otherwise have achieved. But he held us together, as a country, in our most precarious hour, and he did so with class and grace and courage. No wonder we just want to idolize him. He’s a genuine political hero.
But to make an action hero out of him, as well? Admittedly, Benjamin Walker looks convincing, swinging that silver-tipped axe with such ferocity. And they give young Abe motive, saying that his mom was killed by a vampire when he was a kid, so he begins his career as a vampire hunter, under the apprenticeship of someone who was not exactly who he represented himself to be.
But then socially awkward Abe meets pretty Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), whose charm and wit and grace help to change his life. Now, instead of living for revenge, he lives for love. And after he meets up with an old boyhood friend, Will Johnson (Anthony Mackie), who just happens to be black, and experiences some of the horrible racism that era had to offer, stalwart Abe is incensed. Now he has a cause. And here, eloquent Abe rides that righteous indignation right into the White House.
It wasn’t that simple, of course, even in the politics of the time. But wait, we aren’t through oversimplifying yet. It seems the vampires, loving chaos and disorder, and prone to evil, have sided with the secessionists, a good explanation for why the rebel soldiers seemed, at first, to be superior (what general wouldn’t have wanted invincible troops?). So, at the culmination of Gettysburg, our taciturn President has to get out the old battle-axe, literally from mothballs, and personally accompany a trainload of precious silver to the battlefield, so the Yankee soldiers can use them as bayonets, and finally stop the death-defying Confederates.
The re-enactment of Pickett’s Charge is much more convincing here than in that bloated, self-conscious, ponderous 1993 movie called “Gettysburg,” which relied way too heavily on old and fat amateurs. The “real” Civil War soldiers were much younger, much skinnier, more ragged, and less disposed to kerfuffle. You’d almost like to see these vampire-obsessed moviemakers try doing the “real” Civil War, instead of playing with this shopworn horror theme, which quickly gets tiresome and repetitive. After a while, knocking them down “en masse” just starts to look like a cheesy video game. And after all that unreal ghoulish bloodletting, we suddenly have a somber, serious, almost inspiring rendition of the beginning of the Gettysburg Address, and once again we wish they’d quit playing at this historicity and try doing it seriously.
Until then, it’s take it or leave it for this weird mishmash mash-up of slasher film and historical fiction, steeped in pop-culture hysteria.
Ronald P. Salfen is pastor of St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.