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updated: 6/21/2012 1:35 PM

Honest Abe turns vampire killer in viciously visual thriller

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  • U.S. President Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) has an ax to grind with undead citizens sucking the life out of red-blooded American voters in "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter."

      U.S. President Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) has an ax to grind with undead citizens sucking the life out of red-blooded American voters in "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter."

  • Abe Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) fights two wars: one Civil and one evil in "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter."

      Abe Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) fights two wars: one Civil and one evil in "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter."

  • Video: "Abraham Lincoln" trailer

 
 

This has got to be the dumbest movie I've seen in the last 10 years. But I sat in the audience slack-jawed and pop-eyed at this viciously visual, relentlessly amazing action horror movie that creates its own world and stays true to its rules.

"Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" (See? Just the title cracks me up!) imagines that Jefferson Davis himself made a deal with vampires to wipe out Union troops whose weapons were useless on the undead during the Civil War.

That left President Lincoln to concoct a way not only to stop the vampires on the battlefield, but to set up a trap to lure them into the open.

Good thing not-so-honest Abe was secretly a highly trained vampire hunter and martial arts master driven to destroying the creatures responsible for killing both his dear mother and his young son.

I know what you're thinking: Here in Illinois, the land of Lincoln, we don't take kindly to having our beloved 16th president being used as a cheap gimmick in a stupid mashup movie.

I get that.

But "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" (ALVH) isn't stupid. Actually, it's an incredibly inventive, irreverent Republican super hero adventure that gives Abe both a secret identity and a sidekick in the form of his childhood friend, a freed African American named Will (Anthony Mackie, who gives the character far more spunk than the screenplay does).

OK, I grant you this does sound stupid, but its spectacular action sequences are like none you've seen before.

The action scenes from "The Matrix" seem subdued compared to a ridiculously thrilling sequence in which Abe, armed with an ax, chases a fleeing vampire during a horse stampede by jumping from one horse to the next until he catches his man, uh, vampire.

Or the white-knuckle sequence in which Abe and Will defend their train from a full-on vampire attack while chugging across a giant, burning railroad trestle already collapsing from the flames.

This is pure bigger-than-life Paul Bunyan stuff, served up with a tongue-in-cheek smile by Russian filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov, who explored a vampire world in his critically acclaimed "Night Watch" and its sequel "Day Watch" before directing Angelina Jolie in the visually pumped 2008 crime thriller "Wanted."

Bekmambetov plays "ALVH" absolutely straight, no asides to the camera or winking at the audience. Still, the movie packs a few moments of humor here and there, some rather dark. Take Mary Todd Lincoln (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) when she shouts to Abe, "Come on. We'll be late for the play!"

(This movie botches a great opportunity to suggest John Wilkes Booth was a vampire motivated to assassinate Lincoln for his role in quashing the undead rebellion.)

As most super hero movies do, "ALVH" starts at the beginning when little Abe catches a vampire putting a fatal bite on his mother.

Abe grows up to become a vengeance-seeking man played by Benjamin Walker, an unassuming 6-foot, 3-inch Julliard-trained actor who plays Illinois' favorite son as a likable and unpretentious fellow out to educate and improve himself.

He tells his vampire training coach, the mysterious Henry (British actor Dominic Cooper), that he wants to go into politics as a backup, in case the vampire hunting thing doesn't go very well. Abe hates guns, so he uses his skills as a rail splitter to wield a mean ax, tipped with silver, instantly destructive to the undead.

Meanwhile, an ancient alpha vampire appropriately named Adam (Rufus Sewell) hangs out in his New Orleans plantation with his kinsmen, plotting to secure a permanent home for his own kind, with help from the Confederates.

"ALVH" has a deliberately harsh, severely sepia-tone look to the cinematography by the great Caleb Deschanel, who reportedly designed the movie to reflect Mathew Brady's photos from the period.

Aided by some astonishing digital artwork, Bekmambetov delivers documentary-grade, imagined glimpses of the past: the White House under construction, Lincoln's Gettysburg address, a ship-clogged New Orleans port.

The result is a fascinating, unapologetically retina-wrenching work produced by Tim Burton and based on the novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, author of "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies."

No surprise. It's being made into a movie, too.

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