Director : Scott Stewart
Screenplay : Cory Goodman (based on the graphic novel series by Min-Woo Hyung)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2011
Stars : Paul Bettany (Priest), Karl Urban (Black Hat), Cam Gigandet (Hicks), Maggie Q (Priestess), Lily Collins (Lucy Pace), Brad Dourif (Salesman), Stephen Moyer (Owen Pace), Christopher Plummer (Monsignor Orelas), Alan Dale (Monsignor Chamberlain), Mädchen Amick (Shannon Pace), Jacob Hopkins (Boy), Dave Florek (Crocker), Joel Polinsky (Dr. Tomlin)
Loosely based on a South Korean graphic novel series by Min-Woo Hyung, Priest takes place in an alternate reality in which humankind has been battling for ages against a race of vampiric creatures. Part Western, part action movie, and part horror flick, it is yet another in a long line of dim, contrasty postmodern stews that appeal to a particularly dark, pseudo-Gothic sensibility, but probably not to anyone else, including those who enjoy the various genres from which it steals. Director Scott Stewart, a former visual effects technician who made the leap into directing with Legion (2009), another supernatural action movie, thinks largely in visual terms, but with little thought toward character and plot. Even with an actor as interesting as Paul Bettany (who also appeared in Legion) in the title role, Priest never develops any real momentum, instead slogging its way from one dark action setpiece to the next, relying far too much on the brooding weight of its postapocalyptic production design to generate tension and interest.
First-time screenwriter Cory Goodman seems to have been inspired at least partly by John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), albeit without the subtextual explorations of violence and racism. Instead, we get Bettany as the titular Priest, one of a number of superhuman, ecclesiastical warriors recruited by the Catholic Church to battle against the vampire hoards, who were close to taking over the earth. The priests, who are marked by a medieval cross tattooed across their foreheads and down the bridge of their noses, were successful in their battles, and when the film opens, the vampires have been defeated and humankind has sealed itself off inside giant walled cities presided over by the Church. However, the vampires, which are lanky, eyeless humanoids with oval mouths filled with sharp teeth, are not gone entirely, and an army of them raids an outpost owned by Priest’s brother and sister-in-law, killing them and kidnapping their daughter, Lucy (Lily Collins). The Church elders, led by the imposing Monsignor Orelas (Christopher Plummer) refuse to believe that the vampires have returned, thus Priest must go rogue in trying to find Lily, although he swears that he will kill her if she has been turned into a vampire (human bitten by vampires are known as “familiars”).
Priest is joined in his quest by a Priestess played by Maggie Q, who was originally sent by the Church to stop him, and by Hicks (Cam Gigandet), a sheriff and Lily’s boyfriend who is as determined as Priest to find her, but for much different reasons. Most of the action, then, consists of this trio plunging through the wasteland on their massive motorcycles (a repeated visual motif that is slightly cool the first time, annoying the tenth time) and creeping through the dark, labyrinthine interiors of various “hives”--giant, hollowed out mountains in which the vampires hide to avoid the sun. Their primary nemesis is Black Hat (Karl Urban), a former priest who was taken by the vampires and turned into a familiar. And, while Urban snarls effectively as the villain, the idea of his being a former priest now corrupted has little narrative impact. In fact, the film’s entire premise of the Catholic Church essentially ruling the world and purposefully turning a blind eye to the obvious re-emergence of the vampires has little or no bite as religio-political commentary, despite the obvious suggestion that, if the Church had its way, it would become a totalitarian regime (any hint of anti-Catholicism is essentially muted by the recasting of priests as powerful soldier-warriors fighting the good fight against intractable evil, which makes the film yet another variation on the old American idea of the determined individual succeeding despite the system).
Even those who are looking for nothing more than surface delights will find little of interest in Priest. As do so many action directors slugging away in the post-Matrix era, Scott tries to punch up the excitement quotient with an impersonal, uninspired grab-bag mix of showy slow motion and frenetically edited violence that makes mincemeat of any sense of spatial coherence (the only sequence that comes close to working is the climax, which takes place atop a speeding train cutting through the wasteland). It doesn’t help that the characters are cardboard thin, led by Bettany’s stoic warrior hero whose flimsy character traits are overshadowed by his humorless, superhuman prowess. Scott’s visuals are as murky, dark, and impenetrable (especially in 3-D, which darkens the image even further) as the narrative is superficial, resulting in a film that elicits little more than the question, “Who thought this would be a good idea?”
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © Screen Gems