When Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released, there was a longform internet discussion on the nature of the Mary Sue. Debates raged over whether Rey, one of the protagonists of that film, was in that camp of figures. Critics of the question itself lobbed another salvo over the fence, suggesting that Luke Skywalker himself might be one of these wish-fulfillment, good-times, go-lucky goof troops. Unhappiness rages across the solar system.
I can tell you, with no doubt or question, that Vin Diesel’s character in The Last Witch Hunter, Kaulder, is the Most Mary Sue (Or Gary Stu) Character Of All Time. There is not a single line in the film that is wasted in the film’s glorious mission to make Kaulder appear to be the most interesting, cool, sexy, badass, mystical immortal man in the entire history of fiction film. And it works because Vin Diesel has 18 Charisma.
The Last Witch Hunter tells an age-old tale. Man kills evil witch, evil witch curses man with immortality, man becomes tool of the Church in order to hunt down witches for eight hundred years before being hoodwinked by other witches into letting the original evil witch queen back into the world.
It’s a clever setup for what is, at the bottom, a neat urban fantasy story with some Dungeons & Dragons framing, and I think that The Last Witch Hunter enters into the pantheon with Constantine, Underworld, and Jupiter Ascending in the sense that it is a wildly imaginative work that might overreach in terms of what it wants to do in relation to what it is able to do. If you think that any of those films are good and worth your time (I love them all), then you should see this movie immediately.
The Last Witch Hunter has some of the only turn-based combat in filmmaking. Every action takes place in a A > B > A structure, with the film cutting between each figure performing fighting moves or spells as each scene progresses. In the opening of the film, there is a fight scene where a number of northern European almost-vikings travel to the Plague Tree of the Witch Queen to destroy her and end the Black Plague in Europe. Each moment in the sequence happens in turn — a sword swings, an enemy attacks, a spell is cast, Kaulder speaks the power word on his sword so that it bursts into flame, the Witch Queen casts entangle on Kaulder, and he performs the finishing blow that sets the immortality curse into play.
There’s one way of reading this sequence that is purely causal. Events have to happen in time, and linearity of action needs to be achieved, and so of course things look “turn-based” in that everything happens in turn. However, The Last Witch Hunter seems almost allergic to shots that contain more than one action in them. We currently live in the age of the action blockbuster where the cool and trendy thing to do is show coherence of action, and our compositing and CGI technology is advanced enough where we can do that and have it look very cool (the ending of the first Avengers film hinges on this as does huge chunks of Bay’s Transformers films and Liebesman’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles).
The current age of action cinema is wildly erratic and post-continuity. We don’t want to see things in sequence–we want it all at once, a datafield impressed upon us rather than a chain of things. When The Last Witch Hunter slows things down and gives them to us bit-by-bit, it has the feel of intention. It looks, and feels, like figurines moving on a board in sequence, attacking and using skills to defeat their enemy.
My reading is influenced by PR language here: the buzz around The Last Witch Hunter is fully formed around the character in the film being Vin Diesel’s D&D character. Here’s Vinnie D’s own words about the project:
About four years ago or three and a half years ago, I met with this writer named Cory Goodman and I think he wrote Priest, he wrote a bunch of great things. We started talking and someone put us together because he was a Dungeons and Dragons player and thought that could be interesting and I guess he went off to write a whole film around my character Melkor, which was a witch hunter.
And just the very fact that I would be playing a witch hunter speaks to how nerdy I was about the game, how committed I was to the game Dungeons and Dragons because what people may not realize is that the witch hunter class wasn’t offered by TSR at the time. It was a character that you could get from a third party book of characters called The Arcanum. And so even if you played Dungeons and Dragons, you couldn’t play a witch hunter because the witch hunter class didn’t exist in Dungeons and Dragons, but I guess that there were these third party books that allowed you to find and become other characters that you were able to incorporate into the game, and there were a few characters that started there that eventually Dungeons and Dragons took over, but one of those characters was a witch hunter. So I play the witch hunter because I was a huge fan of rangers and this was a class that was somewhat like a ranger and had a small spell class called mysticism at the time. [Perri Nemiroff, Collider]
and slightly later in the same interview
It’s funny that you say that because when you see me in the story meetings, especially regarding films like these, I’m always the guy in the room saying, ‘Okay, just stop for a second and talk to me as though I’m about to play the game.’ [Laughs] ‘Which character would I play and why would I be attracted to that character?’
Literally the grand imagination of the world of The Last Witch Hunter is that of a game, and you can see the story beats on the screen as they might have been pitched to Diesel.
The turns of action can be seen not only as what the first quotations suggests, which would be an adaptation, but they can also be understood as what that last small bit hints at: Cory Goodman and Vin Diesel have created a game of cinema. They have created something Tolkienesque, not evocative, but explanatory. The cinematic performance of The Last Witch Hunter is watching characters move around a board, delivering exposition, and then completing actions in sequence with one another. It’s the procedural logic of apex nerdery.
Despite anything that can be construed as a negative from this model, The Last Witch Hunter is a wonderful experience. It takes itself seriously in all the ways that it is possible to do so, and Vin Diesel’s performance as, well, “Vin Diesel with a sword” is miles above his most iconic character Riddick or the phoned-in work he does in the most recent Fast and Furious films (I love them, but he is not stretching as an actor in those movies).