The first films that come to my mind at the mention of Gemma Arterton and Jeremy Renner are The Disappearance of Alice Creed and The Hurt Locker, respectively. Both are energy-driven and never short on suspense, but they also flex those actors' dramatic muscle in ways that capture more than just intensity on-screen, showcasing a capable hot-head in Renner and a deceptive, crafty viper in Arterton. Since then, those qualities have guided them through semi-comparable roles in blockbuster franchise productions of varying success, eventually landing them here with the eponymous Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, a modestly-budgeted B-grade fantasy from Dead Snow writer/director Tommy Wirkola. Renner and Arterton's strengths go underutilized amid this outlandish, action-oriented spin on a fable that can't decide if it want to play it straight or exploit its R-rating and cornball premise, yet their inherent traits also end up being the only saving graces while stumbling through this thicket of absurdity.
Again pulling both directing and writing duties, Wirkola finds a way to extend the German fable of "Hansel & Gretel" by making the children's battle against a witch -- a showdown in a colorful, literal candy-coated house -- into an origin for their future profession; torching the witch in the oven leads to their "set her ass on fire" mantra. Discovering that they have a knack for stealth and brutality along with a bit of vengeance and an obligation to wipe out other witches, their saga fast-forwards several years to a point where the brother-sister duo have grown into storied, charismatic, gun-wielding bounty hunters who travel across the globe for their work. Gretel (Arterton, Prince of Persia) is the sociable, stable brains of the operation, while Hansel (Renner, The Avengers) fills the shoes of a stand-offish, unruly rogue. Their most recent job involves children being taken from a rustic village whose citizens are itching to execute supposed witches for the crime, and the pair discover an ominous plot connected to a powerful adversary, Muriel (Famke Janssen, X-Men), and the rise of the Blood Moon.
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters juggles tiresome tongue-in-cheek plays on the genre with bloodshed and grotesqueries that merrily abuse its off-kilter setting, resulting in a devil-may-care tempo where magic offers an answer to almost everything -- All witches are decrepit hags, but wait! Witches always burn in fire, but wait! Our guns are weak, but wait! -- inside a stale, oddly-macabre plot. The mythology here, or lack thereof, shoulders much of the blame, where ominous mysteries of the Blood Moon and the witches themselves feel hollow and rushed where they could be crafting a convincing backbone to the work Hansel and Gretel do. Clumsy world-building involving disappearing children, rituals, a disgruntled renegade sheriff (over-dramatically handled by Peter Stormare) and the brother-sister duo's lineage rarely, if ever, feels like anything more than cattle-driving between action sequences. Bordering on SyFy Channel-caliber quality and favoring blunt-force exposition over folklore, it almost finds a way to make even the loopy storytelling in Gilliam's Brothers Grimm more appealing.
The tweaked world that Tommy Wirkola has dreamt up is a peculiar hybrid of medieval fantasy and modern-ish tech, where spells, witches, and rustic villages collide with rapid-fire repeater crossbows and heavy-duty gatling guns wielded by the heroes. A heavy-handed fusion of gothic brood and metal/industrial music propels the movie as powerful minions riding elongated sticks (yeah, kinda like brooms) are chased down on-foot, and grappling hooks can thwart their trajectory if that doesn't work out. Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters does have moments where bold set-pieces hold one's attention: there's a simple, punchy scene that really hits the mark featuring a fireball launched at a village while looking over a witch's shoulder, as well as a grueling stretch where a troll crushes a pack of men with ease. Mostly, though, despite a month of extensive physical training for the two leads and flickers of intriguing make-up design, the anachronistic jumble of bullets, brawn, and black arts never finds the right footing.
What's frustrating about Witch Hunters lies within the promise behind Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton's charismatic modifications of the Grimm-inspired family duo, shaping them into confident, appealing heroes who look the part in stylized leather armor with guns propped against their shoulders. Despite lacking the actress' knack for slyness and exotic magnetism, Arterton's Gretel stands strong as a knowledgeable and astute hunter who handles the physical demands -- kicking ass and getting her ass kicked -- with impressive durability. Conversely, Renner basically recycles elements of Hawkeye and Sergeant James for Hansel's roguish spirit, mixed with a little brutish clumsiness whenever he chats with others. Together, their chemistry works suitably-enough as a brother-sister team who kill nasty things for a living, though the sassy sibling humor bouncing between them falls flat and they miss opportunities to step up as iconic, memorable personas. Their individual sparks carry Wirkola's film, but it's a struggle.
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters doesn't really have a problem with momentum, though, barreling forward on the speed of happy-go-lucky plot solutions and twists concerning the insurmountable power of Muriel. Given ungraceful menace from Famke Janssen, often with her beauty hid underneath a craggy guise, the witch's scheme plays out like a jest at the Grimm Brothers' morbid inclinations, elevating the conflict into a personal journey for Hansel and Gretel as the end-of-days approaches; well, it's as much of a personal journey as it can get while juggling machine guns and zany narrative kinks. The endgame doesn't shy away from delivering explosive goods, though -- egregious bullets and witches' magic are filtered through deep-red lighting in the film's grandest visceral display -- and it'll offer some gruesome eye-candy for those willing to dismiss common sense and doses of divine intervention. Without a firmer foundation, however, it's all just excessive, humdrum fantasy chaos that doesn't cast the spell it should.
Unrated vs. Theatrical:
Note that the Blu-ray only arrives with the Unrated/Extended cut of the film in HD, which extends the length a good ten minutes (1:27:53 to 1:37:56) to compensate for more violence, touchy sequences, and other somewhat superfluous elements. Gore tends to be the most prevalent reason for the edits reinserted here, such as extended scenes of witches burning, bodies being ripped apart, head trauma, etc. However, there are a few non-violent, somewhat grotesque sequences that have been reincorporated, too: Hansel's candid conversation with a bar maiden; a better introduction to Muriel's hench(wo)men and how a certain potion is tested; the extent Hansel and Gretel go to interrogate a witch, and more. Other sequences have also seen meager extensions, such as forest chases and overlong brawls, and one sequences has even had the editing rearranged: instead of being two separate sequences, a brawl and a sex scene haven been edited together so the point-of-view shifts from violence to sensuality. These additions don't make Hansel & Gretel much better, really, but they do bridge exposition gaps to allow certain scenes to make more sense and become more interesting, and, yeah, dish out a little more for gore enthusiasts.
Paramount Home Video have presented Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters in a standard-two-disc Blu-ray package, complete with an embossed cardboard slipcase that replicates the front and back artwork. Inside, it's fairly standard fare from the studio: Disc One is a bland blue-topped Blu-ray disc of the "unrated" cut, while Disc Two is a silver-topped DVD presentation of the theatrical cut that contains none of the special features. An Ultraviolet digital copy slip has also been provided.
Video and Audio:
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters might be a bit of a hex as a film, but Paramount's 2.35:1-framed Blu-ray -- a 1080p AVC treatment -- casts a vivid, shadowy, full-bodied enchantment with how it presents the cinematography from Zombieland's Michael Bonvillain. The visual tone toggles between brisk battles in rich-green wooded areas and static conversations around a grimy rustic village during its brighter shots, while the more dominant darker shots loom in the dimness of cottages and in the town's square. While the contrast becomes rather aggressive at times, it never completely swallows up details during those darker sequences -- and the bursts of light in the shadows, such as an eruption of fire and the bustle of magic from a wand, are pretty deftly-handled. Of course, the more rich textures and fine details emerge during the brighter daytime scenes, which are as crisp, clean, and capable as the digital photography will allow (some faint smoothness holds very minor details back). From flesh tones, pops of aggressive palette usage in blood and the candy-coated house, and the deep sheen of leather, it looks terrific.
The 5-channel Dolby TrueHD track is just as wicked: it's an aggressive, loud, and multifaceted sonic onslaught that frequently sweeps around the entire surround stage. Rounds of artillery, from shotgun blasts and gatling gun rounds to a rain of crossbow bolts, provide punchy bursts surrounding the two heroes, while the visceral sound of fleshy punches and bodies slamming against the ground are modestly forceful. Fireballs and force-pushes hit the audience with fierce bass-centered supernatural sound effects, while the quieter, slightly more elegant natural sounds of blowing winds and cascading waterfalls are crisp and aware of their surround presence. The pounding, hostile score from Season of the Witch composer Atli Orvarsson remains careful in letting dialogue and effects remain comfortably audible, often traveling to every channel of the stage itself. A handful of instances where the dialogue is repressed and the surround channels are a bit too heavy are all that keeps it from being just about faultless. French, Spanish, Portuguese, and English Descriptive tracks are available, as well as optional subs in those same languages.
The extras available here encompass a pretty generic rundown of the material, starting with the press-kit-ready featurette, Reinventing Hansel & Gretel (15:41. 16x9). Interview time with Producer Kevin Messick leads the discussion with how Dead Snow led to him tracking director Tommy Wirkola to see what kind of projects he has in his creative chest. From there, Wirkola discusses the projects origin in film school and his association with the original story, as well as how the casting process played out and how the story finds its center as a brother-sister story. Renner, Arterton, and the rest of the cast discuss their characters and attraction to the story, while a few pieces of concept art and behind-the-scenes shots during filming break up the rhythm, as expected.
Two other shorter features adopt a similar rhythm to the central making-of piece, starting with The Witching Hours (9:01, HD). Here, the cast and crew discuss how the mythology of witches and the Hansel & Gretel story has been tinkered for Wirkola's premise, elaborating on how it breaks away from the stereotypical Wizard of Oz-like perception into something more grotesque. Backed by concept art and behind-the-scenes shots of Famke Janssen in her garb, which is actually really impressive to look at in "natural" light, it's an insightful piece. The third and final feature is Meet Edward the Troll (5:25, HD), which focuses on the mostly-practical effects behind creating a nine-foot, powerful troll. Actor Derek Mears discusses his experience within the suit and how he has to tailor his dramatic awareness to its limitations, while Arterton also chats about the experience.
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters tries to be both a flippant exploitation of the modern fantasy genre and a straight-laced guns-'n-sorcery adventure, using a German fable essentially as a superhero origin story for a brother-sister duo of paranormal bounty collectors. Long story short, though? It's neither fun nor intriguing enough to satisfy either side of what it sets out to do: Gemma Arterton and Jeremy Renner fill out their leather-clad huntsman gear with enough distinctive personality, but they're saddled with a zany, stiff script and direction from Tommy Wirkola that can't handle the contrasting temperaments. Some might find a peppering of enjoyment through its rush of firearms and witchcraft, but it's an exasperating and somewhat dull experience when taken as a whole. Perhaps it's a bit generous to suggest a Rental for this one, but I liked the Arterton-Renner combo and a few well-handled fantasy-action sequences enough to feel like it was worth the time for a screening -- especially for Paramount's crystal-clear Blu-ray treatment.