HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS
Directed by: Tommy Wirkola
Written by: Tommy Wirkola
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton, Famke Janssen, Thomas Mann, Peter Stormare, Pihla Viitala, Kathrin Kühnel
It took the better part of a decade for one-time character actor Jeremy Renner to become an “overnight success.” Renner rode one Oscar-nominated turn in THE HURT LOCKER, Kathryn Bigelow’s Iraq war-drama, to another Oscar-nominated turn (THE TOWN), supporting turns in MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL and THE AVENGERS, and Matt Damon’s presumably permanent replacement in last summer’s THE BOURNE LEGACY. Before THE AVENGERS and THE BOURNE LEGACY, however, Renner starred in HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS, an R-rated action-adventure horror film directed by Norwegian filmmaker Tommy Wirkola (DEAD SNOW) making his English-language debut. It only took an extra year for HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS to reach movie theaters. It was most definitely not worth the wait.
HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS opens with a rote retelling of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale familiar to everyone and their mother (and their sister and their…) as the preteen iterations of the title characters (in the public domain, it should be added) escape into a dark forest (sans breadcrumbs, it should be noted) eventually coming across a candy-coated cabin in the woods. In short order, a witch overpowers Hansel and Gretel and decides to make a meal of them. Just as quickly, the brother-sister duo escape, leaving the witch to burn. That’s just the prologue, of course, a prologue played without the tongue-in-bloody-cheek humor and verbal and physical anachronisms that make their appearance in the next scene.
As adults, Hansel (Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton, TAMARA DREWE, PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME, CLASH OF THE TITANS) function as superheroes in everything but name. For reasons that become clear later on, they’re immune to a witch’s spells, giving them the upper hand they need in their thriving witch-killing business. Clad in tight-fitting leather and armed with advanced weaponry, Hansel and Gretel travel from town to town, dispatching witches in exchange for cash. Superheroes they might be, but they’re also mercenaries. Their latest endeavor leads to conflict with an authoritarian sheriff, Berringer (Peter Stormare), non-eager to share witch-catching or witch-killing duties with the fairy-tale duo and the disappearance of eleven children (advertised on milk bottles, no less).
Not one to add in complications, not to mention subtext, into his script, Wirkola introduces the audience to HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS’ central villain, Muriel (Famke Janssen), a dark-haired witch with the proverbial evil plan and a heart filled with coal, Muriel’s hench-witches, an unhygienic troll named Edward (Derek Mears) with an affinity for Gretel, and an obsessive fanboy for the witch-fighting duo, Ben (Thomas Mann), who doesn’t so much function as comic foil or sidekick than as a time-wasting diversion whenever he’s onscreen. Wirkola sprinkles in hints of a romantic relationship between Gretel and Ben, but doesn’t take it very far, saving the romantic entanglements in HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS for Hansel and a woman, Mina (Pihla Viitala), Hansel and Gretel save from Berringer and townspeople eager to find and burn a witch, any witch, including non-witches who’s eccentric behavior and fair hair marks her as an outsider worthy of exclusion.
As for the rest, HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS runs short, mercifully, thankfully short, seguing from dialogue scenes peppered with contemporary idioms, vulgarity, and the occasional F-bomb, to CG-centric action scenes heavy on decapitations and dismemberment. The broad tone humor and gore wise presumably signals Wirkola’s desire to make HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS less of a straightforward action-horror film and more of a Raimiesque horror-comedy in tone and result. In that regard, Wirkola fails and fails hard. Even with a co-writer, Dante Harper, along to help out with American idioms and speech patterns, HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS has little to offer verbally, less so character and story wise. Only moviegoers on Ambien won’t be able to surmise the non-mystery mystery at the center of Wirkola’s film and with visual inventiveness limited to R-rated splatter, HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS is nothing less (and often far less) than another sub-mediocre studio franchise wannabe that will or rather should go nowhere.
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