Because Hollywood is nothing if not predictable, folklore’s Hansel and Gretel are the latest figures of historical renown — fictional or otherwise — to be turned into ass-kicking heroes in Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.
After a prologue that is the closest the film comes to following the original tale, we next meet the siblings as adults. Jeremy Renner (The Avengers, The Bourne Legacy) and Gemma Arterton (Quantum of Solace, Prince of Persia) are the titular, inexplicably modern-looking heroes, dressed in fashionably designed, form-fitting leather. Somehow, in the intervening years, they have acquired an inexhaustible cache of weaponry and formidable combat skills. Though the time period and setting are pre-20th-century Germany, our leads utter tough-guy phrases in flat American accents, including “follow my lead and stay cool,” and, in what may be the high point of its eloquence, “I’ll blow your fucking brains all over these hillbillies.”
When a village starts losing its children to kidnappers, Hansel and Gretel arrive to the save the day. That quest eventually brings them face-to-face with a powerful witch (Famke Janssen) who is attempting to effect a plan that will render her and her coven impervious to fire.
Tommy Wirkola, who previously brought moviegoers the Nazi zombies of Dead Snow, directed and cowrote this dismal grab for box-office cash. Unless you count giving Hansel diabetes, there's not much in the way of an interesting twist on the legend. Yes, Hansel has to administer injections into his leg because of the candy he consumed as a boy. The film means for us to take this completely seriously.
Wirkola's script and staging are so over-the-top ridiculous, it's tempting to read Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters as a commentary on the Hollywood action film. His witches bound through the forest like the parkour-skilled bomb maker in Casino Royale and exhibit exceptional hand-to-hand fighting technique. And how else should we take the sight of Gretel standing over us, her gun pointed squarely at the audience, stating, "There's not going to be an open casket," before blasting away?
Here is a film that should take the luster off Renner, who portrays Hansel as a humorless killing machine without a trace of persona. In other words, there's no difference between this characterization and the one he gives as Hawkeye in The Avengers. Plenty of fine actors deliver similar performances from movie to movie. The problem with Renner's are that his are boring.
Apropos to our gun-worshiping culture, the real hero of the piece is the insane amount of weaponry and ammo at the heroes' disposal: In the movie's big showdown, a good witch cuts down a gathering of the bad ones with a high-caliber machine gun. The sequence has more to do with Rambo than the classic fairy tale that gives this film its name. (In all sincerity, compare this scene to the final fight in the most recent Rambo, and see if the latter didn't directly influence the former.) One might have thought we'd be safe from this sort of ridiculousness after Arnold Schwarzenegger's portrayal of Hamlet in the movie-with-a-movie of The Last Action Hero."To be or not to be," he gravely states while lighting up a cigar. An explosion follows. "Not to be."