Stiff, Confused 'Hansel & Gretel' Ain't for the Storybooks

Directed by: Tommy Wirkola; Runtime: 87 minutes
Grade: C-/D+

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.

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