'Hansel & Gretel' is bitter and not so sweet
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
The much-delayed (and understandably delayed) "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters" is grim going. This horror-action-comedy pastiche possesses all the terror and suspense and visual pizzazz of a downscale video game for dull-eyed teens happy to lap up lame wisecracks and lots of gore. Back in 2009, director Tommy Wirkola served up "Dead Snow," a horror hit about rampaging Nazi zombies. Apparently that modest success convinced some Hollywood drone that the Norwegian helmer should apply his modicum of talent to "H&G," a big-budget faux fairy tale about skanky witches and the amazingly uncharismatic siblings (Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton) who make a living by offing them. That was a mistake.
If there's any justice, Wirkola's career as writer-director will hit the wall in the wake of the catastrophe that is "H&G." The man hasn't a clue how to dream up dialogue that real human beings might conceivably utter, even when stuck in his patently phony Dark Age. Gifted with A-list Renner and the often lively Arterton, Wirkola reduces his leads to unlikable smart alecks who spend most of their time rolling around in the dirt, punched out by one seemingly unstoppable witch after another. Since "H&G" is essentially just a string of ultra-bloody dustups, it hardly helps that the hack in charge doesn't know the first thing about directing kinetically and spatially coherent action.
Once upon a time, in the dark of night, a father leads his two kids out into the woods and abandons them. Eventually, Hansel and Gretel fetch up at a grotesque cottage made out of crappy-looking candy and cookies. Inside, a nasty crone fattens them up for the oven. Suddenly brother and sister gang up on the hag, and after a flurry of impossible-to-parse action, she falls screaming into her own cooking fire. Now, in Grimm or Guillermo del Toro, such a nightmare adventure -- little kids deserted by their parents, then menaced by a cannibal crone -- would be terrifying. Cold-sweat suspense should make us squirm as the witch prepares to cook the traumatized children. But "H&G" consistently flatlines, never engaging us emotionally, viscerally, any which way. This opening prologue sets the tone: From start to finish, nothing in "H&G" really moves -- or moves us -- authentically.
Later, via woodcut headlines and pix, we learn that grown-up Hansel and Gretel have become famous for their witch-killing skills. Like medieval gunslingers, the two go from town to town selling their services. Their weapons, of course, are neither period pieces nor especially practical: multi-barreled, silver-bound shotguns, semi-automatic crossbows and, later, Gatlings. Doesn't really matter what big-bore weapons they wield: At the start of almost every identically choreographed blur of battle, guns and bows get dropped or knocked away. It's impossible to estimate how many times Gretel takes a punch to the mouth or Hansel is thrown across a room or a forest glade. In this relentless unreality, no matter how extreme the combat, hardly anyone ever seems to feel pain or require hospitalization. And when someone explodes or gets his head squashed or stomped, it's really kinda funny, so you don't really have to worry or care about the expendables.
Did we mention that the witch hunters' couture runs to black leather? Hansel sports a long Neo coat, while Gretel has poured her shapely legs into impossibly tight, shiny leather leggings. Though far from a fan of the witch hunters, the venomous town sheriff, played by the always-over-the-top Peter Stormare, also prefers ebon gear, as does the worst witch ever (Famke Janssen), who gussies up in raven feathers and black lipstick. (Talk about waste: Phoenix Famke's gorgeous face is hidden under ugly-corpse makeup for most of the film.)
Sorry about that fashion digression, but one has to find amusement where one can in this monumentally tedious mishmash. The crux of the movie's matter is that there's a Blood Moon coming and lots of children must be killed and the heart of a Grand White Witch procured so that witches can rule the world. (At the great Gathering, the night hags are more silly than grotesque, less suggestive of Hieronymus Bosch demons than a bunch of stoned hippies decked out in thrift store rags.) Assisted by a giant, really ugly troll named Edward (no, he doesn't have sparkly skin!) and a sexy, redheaded white witch, Hansel and Gretel battle on and on, one violent coda after another following the big bloodbath -- as though the director just can't tear himself away from this mesmerizing tale of good and evil and exploding body parts.
Tommy Wirkola has much to answer for, not least the sin of directing Jeremy Renner (Oscar-nommed for Best Actor in Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker") to face a house made of sweets and sneer, "Whatever you do, don't eat the candy." Better yet, don't see "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters."
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.