Timur Bekmambetov, the director of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, might be insane. I don't mean that as an insult. The man behind Night Watch, Day Watch, and Wanted isn't interested in nuance or character or plot or basic human emotions. Watching his movies, you get the sense that he doesn't spend much time talking to people—to him, everybody is just a video game avatar that you should be able to twist and turn as you please. He's not what you'd call a good filmmaker, but he might be an amazing one.
Born in Kazakhstan, Bekmambetov started off in commercials like a lot of young filmmakers do, but by the turn of the century he was well on his way to a career in features. The first that got worldwide attention was 2004's Night Watch—a sci-fi fantasy extravaganza featuring vampires, witches and other creatures—which became a blockbuster in Russia. When it finally arrived in the U.S. a couple years later, it developed a cult following, with American audiences noting how the film seemed like a gonzo, hyperactive distillation of the best parts of The Matrix and half a dozen graphic novels. Even the movie's subtitles wouldn't sit still, blending into the fabric of the film. Night Watch and its sequel, Day Watch, weren't original, but Bekmambetov found ways to take lots and lots of old things and dress them up in ways that seemed new to him. Bekmambetov's unabashed aren't-movies-freakin'-awesome tone was probably the No. 1 reason why folks such as Quentin Tarantino loved him: They recognized a fellow film nut.
Soon, Hollywood came calling, but Bekmambetov sounded unsure about going to America. "I cannot say that it makes me happy personally but it helps me to discover new horizons and new people," he told a reporter in 2005. "It's just interesting ... For sure if I have a Hollywood budget I will try to imitate Spielberg." If he is sincerely trying to ape Spielberg, that makes his American output even goofier.
His U.S. debut, 2008's Wanted, which was based on Mark Millar and J. G. Jones's comic books, was a vile summer blockbuster, but Bekmambetov showed a fascinating commitment to his nihilistic vision. Where other summer flicks go out of their way to pretend to be sensitive—despite all the mayhem, innocent bystanders almost never die—Wanted was giddy, full-throttled carnage. This wasn't Fight Club, where the rampant violence is tsk-tsked: Wanted was a movie that seemed like it jumped directly from the head of a sicko, without any attempt at editorializing or softening. Like Bekmambetov's sometimes-fractured English in interviews, the movie was sorta recognizable but a little off. And it was a big hit.
Since then, everything Bekmambetov has put his hands on has felt the same way: an outsider's warped idea of what a Hollywood movie is. The films he's produced, like the dark animated fable 9 or the found-footage horror movie Apollo 18, are almost celluloid illustrations of the uncanny valley. And, yet, their genuine weirdness—their undeniable foreignness—makes them endlessly watchable.
It's as if Bekmambetov has spent his whole life ingesting our movies without making any delineation between the good and bad ones. This is borne out in that same 2005 interview, when he was asked what movies had influenced Night Watch. "If I've seen the movie it means it's an influence on my own filmmaking," he declared. "Every movie has a reflection in Night Watch. Even if it's a bad film itself. The character in Bad Boys II, I really like him—the funny black policeman." Bad Boys II!)
Now he's back with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the first film he's directed since Wanted. Based on Seth Grahame-Smith's novel, which re-imagines our 16th president as an underworld killing machine, Vampire Hunter has a premise that nobody should take seriously. Thankfully, Bekmambetov isn't nobody. This movie may be his masterpiece—completely laughable and incredibly entertaining, because the man behind it really, really believes he's doing important work.
In Bekmambetov, a new generation may have its Paul Verhoeven, the wondrously sincere, wondrously absurd Dutch auteur who gave us Robocop, Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers, and Showgirls. Like Verhoeven, Bekmambetov gets under your skin because he's actually talented. And as opposed to other visual stylists, such as Tarsem, Bekmambetov doesn't make movies that feel like they're trapped under glass: They're alive and rambunctious, and if they don't make sense, don't worry because—hey, look at that over there!
Constantly during Vampire Hunter, I was too busy chuckling at the utter ballsiness of the whole affair to care that, OK, fine, making a movie that combines slavery with vampire-hunting might be a tad distasteful. Bekmambetov gets away with his historical Cuisinart by investing in it body and soul. In his mind, vampires and slavery are just two equally interesting obstacles with which to play with—it's all just movie stuff.
Is it offensive if the guy doesn't know better? No more offensive than when Verhoeven dressed Neil Patrick Harris up like a Nazi in Starship Troopers or had Elizabeth Berkley flop around like a fish in Showgirls. Bekmambetov spoke recently with io9, and he seemed to understand exactly what it is that he's doing. "I'm not making movies for critics," he announced. "I'm making movies for the audience. And my audience has very strange taste." Yeah, and perhaps not good taste, either. But where so many other big action films leave you exhausted, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter put a big grin on my face. I'm pretty sure Bekmambetov's movies are making me stupider. I'm not sure I mind.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.