I could summarize the plot of "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," but why bother? All the important details are in the title: There's a tall actor (Benjamin Walker) who's outfitted to look vaguely like America's 16th president, Abraham Lincoln — he comes equipped with a top hat, an ax and eventually a beard — and he kills vampires. What else do you need to know?
The filmmakers seem to be hoping the answer to that question is: nothing. The movie's high point is its name, which seems more like a joke about ridiculous movie concepts than an actual movie.
But an actual movie it is, if only barely. "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" represents a new low in high-concept laziness; it's what happens when elevator pitches substitute for ideas, and pop-culture gimmicks replace story.
Like so many summer blockbusters of late, the movie is structured as a superhero origin story. A young Abe Lincoln witnesses his mother's murder at the fangs of a vampire and vows revenge. He's tutored in the ways of vampire hunting by a mentor, Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper) and quickly becomes a sort of vampire assassin, complete with superhuman ax-swinging abilities. Along the way, he stops to occasionally give speeches about the evils of slavery and run for office, eventually winning the White House, where as president he wages civil war against a South run by vampires who rely on slaves for sustenance.
It is a frustrating movie that is both too absurd and yet not absurd enough: There's precious little fun in either the ax-swinging or the dour conversational filler that connects the big action set pieces.
That's something of a surprise coming from Russian director Timur Bekmambetov, who might seem a natural choice for such material: The director of a series of deliriously over the top, big-budget Russian-language action films about a secret war between occult creatures, Mr. Bekmambetov specializes in frenetic fits of physics-averse action spectacle: His American debut, an adaptation of the superhero assassin comic "Wanted," offered a wantonly violent, logic-free head rush — watching it was like being hooked up to an IV of liquid awesome.
But his action hero Abraham Lincoln suffers from a shortage of amusing action nonsense. Once in a while, Mr. Bekmambetov conjures up a fleeting moment of bloody beauty — a slow-motion arc of arterial spray resembles a crimson Pollock painting, for example. But too much of the movie is bloodless and boring, hidden behind cheap-looking effects and murky cinematography.
Indeed, rather than revel in the outlandish silliness of its conceptual gimmick, the movie sometimes tries to take itself seriously, suggesting some thematic parallels between the fictional Lincoln's vampire hunting and his quest to free the South's slaves. The unintentional effect is to simultaneously cheapen the real-life history and weigh down the pop-culture absurdities.
Used properly, vampires can be frightening villains and even clever metaphors, but here they stand for nothing. Well, nothing except perhaps the movie itself, a pale and soulless monstrosity that exists for the sole purpose of sucking its victims, the viewers, dry.
TITLE: "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter"
CREDITS: Directed by Timur Bekmambetov; screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith
RATING: R for bloody vampire violence
RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS