Some actors who've been part of long-running franchises long to break out and do something different — indies, romantic comedies, personal films.
Not Vin Diesel.
When Diesel isn't jumping cars through skyscrapers, he just wants to fight mud demons on an alien planet and ride elephants over the Pyrenees. Diesel's passion projects aim to be even more grandiose than the Fast & Furious series that secured his status as a household name.
His latest, The Last Witch Hunter, is as untrammeled a combination of fantasy geeking-out and ego-driven muscle movie as you'll find in theaters this year.
It is terrible. It is fabulously entertaining. It is the most Vin Diesel project of all time. And here's why:
1. It starts off with Vin Diesel as a Viking named Kaulder.
Theoretically, the film begins in the Middle Ages, since by the time it skips to the present day, Diesel's character's Kaulder has been in the witch-hunting biz for 800 years. But his look in the beginning is pure Viking, or more accurately like Diesel watched Vikings on the History Channel and decided he wanted in on that sweet undercut action.
Is there something fundamentally funny about the sight of the perpetually bald Diesel with hair? Of course — it was the best unspoken joke in Sidney Lumet's underappreciated Find Me Guilty. And yet Diesel wears the flowing locks and beard pigtails with such evident enjoyment as he and his pals in the vague past trek to a witch tree and down into a witch hole to fight the Witch Queen (Julie Engelbrecht), as if trying to make a point that his macho star wattage can't be dimmed by the covering up of his shiny pate.
2. Kaulder is a character with no flaws.
Present-day Kaulder is the manliest man to have ever lived forever in an extremely lavish apartment overlooking Central Park and fight using a flaming sword. Yes, Dom in the Fast & Furious seems like a character who's indestructible and never wrong, but he has nothing on Kaulder.
Kaulder has infinite money, tasteful designer clothes, and a closet full of magical items. He works for some organization within the Catholic Church called the Axe and the Cross, mostly so that they can refer to him in whispers as "the Weapon" and assign him a Buffy-style handler called a Dolan who keeps a history of all of his badass adventures (Michael Caine, then Elijah Wood). He's "cursed" with immortality, his wounds healing as soon as they're inflicted, so he's, by his own admission, never afraid. He is a cheat code incarnate, hilariously indulgent, and his hobby is fixing watches, as if the whole man-out-of-time thing needed a visual metaphor to really hammer it home. His weaknesses include preferring to work alone and getting a little lonely between picking up flight attendants, which are so barely weaknesses that the movie has to invent a grand betrayal to allow for any conflict.
3. Kaulder witchhuntersplains magic to witches.
In the past, Kaulder killed witches (a gender-neutral term in the world of the movie), but in the present, there's a treaty and he's more of a witch cop, able to embody fantasy and cop cliches in the best urban utopian fashion. Kaulder's not a witch, but that doesn't stop him from knowing more about them than any actual witch does — he even explains their history to his reluctant ally Chloe (Rose Leslie).
Kaulder's job is to make sure none of the witches living among us misbehave, sending bad witches to the witch prison and sometimes benevolently saving ones who just don't know better from themselves. The first time we see Kaulder in action, he's tracking down a young witch on a flight who's stored some elemental runes too close together, causing the storm that threatens to bring down the plane. Witches, Kaulder witchhuntersplains, don't know their own power. But clearly, Diesel does.
4. The movie is Dungeons & Dragons-inspired.
Diesel has spoken often about his love of Dungeons & Dragons and the movie was actually born out of a discussion about D&D he had with Cory Goodman, who went on to write the screenplay with Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, with Sahara's Breck Eisner later brought on to direct. The Last Witch Hunter is set in a world full of rules Kaulder smugly explains — like those runes on the plane, or the difference between elemental magic, which is neutral, and black magic, which is not. He refers to someone as a "level 14 warlock," disrupts a concealment spell, and at one point, goes to buy a memory potion. The movie as a whole feels like a way of smuggling RPG logic into the multiplex.
5. The fate of the world is less important than the possibility of a sequel.
Diesel loves his franchises — he fought to make the third Riddick film happen even when most of the rest of the world seemed pretty ready to let that character go. And The Last Witch Hunter ends on a particularly ridiculous "this will be a series, dammit" note. (Mild spoilers ahead.)
The movie's overall arc involves a revelation about Kaulder's curse and a conspiracy to bring the Witch Queen back. The whole thing would, in anyone else's hands, set up Kaulder getting to live life as a mortal, to age, and to die, except that wouldn't allow Diesel to continue playing the character as superhuman, were the film to get the sequel the actor claims is already in the works. So instead, there's a moment in which Chloe literally begs Kaulder to keep going, pleading, "The world needs you! I need you!" as he makes a choice that renders a lot of the drama that came before pointless. Kaulder's existence may place the world in continual danger, but what does that matter when there's the possibility of more Witch Hunter movies?