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Remembering The Last Witch Hunter, Vin Diesel’s Other Attempt at a Franchise Starter
The cast is awesome and the sights are spectacular… so what gives?
The Last Witch Hunter (stream it here on Peacock!) looks fantastic. In this present entertainment era, where video games provide much of the imaginative spectacle fueling pop culture (including movies), it’s one of those rare recent film releases with wildly creative visual achievements that truly does make the impossible seem real. And on that front, it won’t be upstaged by games (or other movies, for that matter) anytime soon.
Led by Vin Diesel as a potential starter for a new dark fantasy franchise, it’s got great actors, too: Michael Caine, Elijah Wood, Game of Thrones alum Rose Leslie, Icelandic crossover star Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, and, of course, Diesel himself in the main witch-stalking role. Its chief villain is one of the coolest-looking baddies out there, and nearly every frame is oozing with slick supernatural eye candy. Directed by Breck Eisner (Saraha) and lensed by Oscar-winning cinematographer Dean Semler (Dances with Wolves, Apocalypto), it’s the kind of movie you might instinctively put on when friends come over and start asking geeky questions about what your fancy new OLED TV can do.
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So why did Diesel’s supposed next big thing draw only tepid response at the 2015 box office — all while getting torched by tons of critics? We’re just spitballing here, but it may have something to do with failing to ground audiences in the wacky rules and lore basics of its deep and complicated story-verse, even as it throws them headlong into the middle of a raging good-and-evil conflict where understanding that kind of stuff is key to actually understanding the bigger story.
Vin Diesel’s The Last Witch Hunter plays fast and loose with the rules
Diesel plays an ageless knight named Kaulder who literally can’t be killed. While slaying the Witch Queen (don’t ask; just go with it) 800 years ago for decimating humanity with the Black Plague, she makes it her dying act to cast a spell that curses him with immortality — a fate that’ll leave him plenty of time to brood over the medieval-era family he lost. Since then, he’s been affiliated with the Axe and the Cross, a church-y stealth organization that tasks itself with keeping a fragile peace between humans and the witches who still walk among them. And from one generation to the next, it’s been Kaulder’s job — a solo one, as the movie’s title implies — to hunt down witches who pose a threat and and haul them before the outfit’s court-like tribunal for judgment and possible imprisonment (or worse).
As you can probably tell from that short setup, there’s a ton of backstory to grasp before The Last Witch Hunter can really begin to tell its actual story — a story that involves the Witch Queen not actually being dead and plotting a present-day Earthly takeover. In New York, we meet Kaulder’s one and only true human friend — a priest of the Axe and the Cross (played by the inimitable Caine, who absolutely nails some of the movie’s best lines) as the “36th Dolan.” What’s a Dolan, you ask? It’s essentially a highly specialized personal assistant to Kaulder, who thankfully makes the job far less demanding than it probably should be — a function, no doubt, of writing the role around Diesel’s gift for playing endearingly resourceful, no-fuss heroes.
The movie’s ready-made lore-verse hits some kind of sweet spot between the relic-empowered hidden history of The Da Vinci Code and the more fantastical tropes of less-serious supernatural material like Blade, Harry Potter, True Blood, and well, The Magicians. If you like pentagrams on the ground, butterflies spewing from warlocks, and wispy runic symbols faintly traced on foggy windows, this is definitely your kind of movie — so long, that is, as you don’t ask too many questions about how any of it actually works.
In a fun low-key gag, the 800-year-old Kaulder affectionately refers to the aging (but still merely mortal) Dolan as a “kid.” But when the Dolan ends up all but dead on the very night that he announces he’s retiring, something seems fishy about the tragedy’s too-convenient timing, leading Kaulder on an investigative hunt to track down the witchy identity of the Dolan’s would-be killer. Tugging at that thread, in turn, uncovers far deeper intrigue, and it sets off events that we probably couldn’t even spoil if we tried.
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Yep, things get dense fast in this movie, and whenever something supernatural happens, The Last Witch Hunter’s lack of audience-friendly ground rules kind of denies its biggest plot points the chance of landing with any impact. Why does this kind of magic work on that kind of bad guy? How does the whole dream-walking magic that Chloe (Leslie’s character) uses work? When did Kaulder get hooked up with the Axe and the Cross? If the Witch Queen can grant immortality, how can she be killed herself? And where the hell did the Witch Queen even come from in the first place (and why is she so dead-set against humans)?
Sure, plenty of schlocky supernatural movies don’t bother with those kind of answers. But then again, most of them don’t feature a cast as terrific as this one (or a budget that lets them carry out every ambitious visual idea at this scale of spectacle). Most of them aren’t intended to jump-start a new movie franchise, either — an aspiration that Diesel promoted as a hopeful possibility ahead of The Last Witch Hunter’s release.
Could a sequel still happen? Maybe — though there’s been no news on whether Diesel’s witch franchise has a future since 2020, when the actor confirmed that he and the studio were indeed forging ahead on development. But things have fallen radio silent since then, even as Diesel has continued to stay busy with higher-profile recent projects like 2023’s Fast X (also streaming on Peacock) and the upcoming fourth film in his Riddick sci-fi series. If The Last Witch Hunter ever does get a followup, one thing’s for sure: The first film’s events leave no room for Elijah Wood’s more-than-he-seems character to return… though then again, when the movie rules of mortality are this murky, maybe anything can happen.
Watch The Last Witch Hunter on Peacock here — preferably on the biggest and fanciest screen you can find!