'Hansel & Gretel' falls short

Reviewer's Rating: ★1/2

First there was Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Now there’s Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.

In the fairy tale collected and published by the Brothers Grimm, Hansel and Gretel are children who, after they’re abandoned by their parents, fall into a trap set by a cannibal witch.

But the children outwit their captor and escape. A 21st-century big-screen adaptation of the story offers some twists, the biggest being that Hansel and Gretel grow up to be heavily armed, witch-slaying bounty hunters.

Jeremy Renner, the intense leading man in director Kathryn Bigelow’s 2008 breakthrough, The Hurt Locker, turns casual to the point of drunk and sloppy for Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. Renner plays Hansel to Gemma Arterton’s approximately 16th-century example of girl power, Gretel.

Norwegian writer-director Tommy Wirkola helms the horrific-in-a-bad-way Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. Perhaps because English is a second language to the director, the movie’s dialogue is especially weak and underdeveloped. Even the leads have almost nothing to say, and nothing that is said is worth hearing.

That said, the movie is largely an action picture. Hansel and Gretel, wielding firearms that have no business in a story set centuries ago, are a pair of cocky young witch killers, invincible in the manner of youth who believe they cannot be harmed.

But something more sinister and dangerous than any witch power or magic the siblings have thus far encountered is brewing in witch-occupied forest. Dutch actress Famke Janssen wastes her beauty and talent as Muriel, queen of witches. Muriel is leading an effort to create a magic potion that will render witches flame resistant.

Scenes featuring Hansel and Gretel and their futuristic weapons killing witches basically amount to video-game imagery. The witches fly through the forest at high velocity. They’re are also extremely strong. Renner’s Hansel gets thrown around like a character in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. If he hooks one of these nasty she-devils, he gets dragged at high speeds along the forest floor. Dark magic, Renner explains to some villagers who are about to burn an innocent young woman, infests real witches with progressive, cadaverous-looking ugliness.

Frequent though the film’s action scenes are, they’re poorly choreographed and borderline incomprehensible. The movie’s relentlessly gloomy palette, too, makes it all the more difficult to see what’s going on. It’s dark even in daylight.

A subplot, useless except for the purpose of stretching the movie’s anemic script to just under 90 minutes, involves a nasty town sheriff who battles Hansel and Gretel as much as the witches do.

So, while Bigelow enjoys another triumph with Zero Dark Thirty, her award-worthy depiction of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, Renner should be embarrassed by his stinker of witch hunt.