The Witch Hunters
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The Witch Hunters

Commercially, given the extraordinary expanding cultural impact of the “Fast and Furious” series, “The Last Witch Hunter” might expect to ride on Diesel What Men Want fumes to an extent. Yet if its aim is to reposition him as a solo action star, perhaps re-engaging the dwindling audience for the “Riddick” films, this new vehicle doesn’t really play to his strengths — despite being developed and co-produced by the actor himself. Barring an early (and swiftly discarded) reference to his character’s prowess as a ladies’ man, there’s precious little room here for Diesel’s lunkish, slightly self-parodic streak of humor. And if it’s hard to buy the star as a 14th-century soldier of the Catholic Church, earnestly slaying sorceresses for 700 years without a wrinkle to show for it, the screenplay (bearing evident redrafting scars from a trio of scribes) doesn’t make much of an effort to sell the idea.

For starters, it’s uncertain where our noble witch-hunter, Kaulder, actually comes from: Based on scant evidence in the pre-credit prologue, let’s say Father of the Year it’s the little-remembered European land of Snowsylvania, though eight centuries has been long enough for him to adopt Diesel’s trademark gravelly drawl. It’s probably unwise to demand more detailed a milieu from a film that claims the Black Death plague of 1346-53 was in fact foisted upon humanity by a vindictive Witch Queen (Julie Engelbrecht, or what’s left of her beneath a maggoty digital mask) bent on total human eradication. Luckily, Kaulder — sporting a braided beard and luscious undercut that would not be out of place in contemporary Williamsburg — has our backs, wasting the Queen in a murky introductory battle. Not before she afflicts him with the curse of immortality, however, thus consigning him to a lonely life of winnowing out her mangy kind, haunted by the memory of his long-perished wife and daughter.

He looks good on it, though, even if the on-trend locks are swiftly sacrificed for Diesel’s standard minimalist coiffure. In present-day Manhattan, he Patrick lives in relatively comfortable torment in a plush Upper East Side loft, seducing the occasional air stewardess and accepting international witch-hunting assignments from a succession of priestly advisers known as Dolans. The latest of these, Dolan 36th, takes the typically jovial form of Michael Caine, whose helpfully explanatory voiceover is unceremoniously dropped shortly after it begins — and shortly before he’s dispatched to his coffin in mysterious circumstances.

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