Norwegian filmmaker Tommy Wirkola has made a name for himself by aping the works of others and blending disparate odds and ends and spinning them into offbeat features. He made his debut with Kill Buljo (a spoof of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill); peaked with the brilliantly cheesy Dead Snow, a horror comedy with — wait for it… wait for it — zombie Nazis that works as an accidental parody of ’80s ski-bum comedies/slasher flicks; and followed that up with The Legend of the Fjord Witch, a half-assed rip-off of The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity.
If that filmography merely hints at the limits of Wirkola’s creativity, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters screams it into your face. Actually, almost every aspect of the movie is IN! YOUR! FACE (doubly so if you see it in 3-D) in a way that suggests overcompensation for its lack of substance. It’s like the old garage band adage that if you can’t play well, then cover for it by playing loud as hell. Which brings up the weird, almost contradictory central flaw hounding Hansel & Gretel: As broad and campy as it is, it somehow manages to fall short of saving itself by fully committing to going bravely, blazingly, unabashedly over the top.
The story — to use the term loosely — begins with the familiar Brothers Grimm fairy tale condensed into a prologue that serves as an origin story for Hansel (Jeremy Renner, still slumming between Avengers movies) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton as a character defined by her corset and leather pants). Their adolescent run-in with a hungry witch marked the beginning of their career as professional witch hunters who utilize an array of steampunk-ish gadgets and firearms to kill their quarry (who for some reason seem to be more versed in mixed martial arts than in black magic.)
The duo arrive in a standardized Bavarian terrified village whose children have been kidnapped in disturbing numbers. They quickly (quite quickly, because there’s no messing around with tedious plot or character development here) expose the involvement of a Grand Witch (Famke Janssen, who publicly stated that she took the role to pay off her mortgage) out to perform some ill-defined ritual during a rare Blood Moon. Cue a series of loosely connected action sequences that culminates with the machine-gunning of a witches’ Sabbath (seriously).
Unfortunately, it’s not as much fun as it sounds. The anachronisms, f-bombs, and schlocky Evil Dead-esque gore make it clear that this spoof of the most basic nature; that’s fine and all, but unfortunately Wirkola and co-scripter Dante Harper fail to invest any real wit into the story. Instead they’re content to coast on cheap laughs, a bombastic score, and a near constant barrage of over-choreographed yet incoherent violence that often carries more than a whiff of misogyny. The only clever, creative detail they put forth is a weak running gag that has Hansel as a diabetic thanks to eating to much of that damn gingerbread house as a kid.
It’s such a slack film that it makes Van Helsing look like Dr. Zhivago. If there’s one good thing about Hansel & Gretel it’s that it has a mercifully short 90-minute running time; still, it somehow manages to feel much, much longer.