Unlike the recent Cowboys And Aliens, which combined two popular genres in an entertaining mash-up, Priest somehow is a rather dour and visually ugly hybrid of the western and horror genres. It is also an eminently unpleasant, chaotic, disappointing and forgettable piece of cinema.
Priest follows the template of the John Wayne classic The Searchers, but this futuristic action film is set in a lawless, post-Apocalyptic wasteland, and it replaces Indians with vampires. And the vampires here are not the usual seductive and sleek creatures familiar to audiences through films like the Twilight series, or the camp Hammer horror films of the 60s and 70s. Rather they are ugly, hideously deformed CGI-generated creatures. Priest is actually based on the Korean graphic novel written by Min-Woo Hyung, and the screenplay from first time writer Cory Goodman remains reasonably faithful to the source. Priest deals with themes of faith, sacrifice, religion, courage, and redemption.
The comic book origins of the film are evident everywhere, from the distinctive visual style through to the hyper realistic staging of the action sequences. Genndy Tartakovsky’s stylishly animated opening sequence gives us the history of the long war between the humans and the vampires, a bloody struggle that ended when the humans found the ultimate weapon against the vampire menace in highly trained priests, proficient in martial arts. Eventually the vampires were driven into hives on reservations in the distant wasteland territories, while the humans retreated behind huge walls into protected cities where the powerful and oppressive church held sway. “To go against the church is to go against God,” is the oft-repeated mantra from the Big Brother-like figure on the huge monitor screens that dominate the skyline of this cold, steely blue city. The priests themselves were no longer needed and found themselves outcasts, forced to do menial jobs to survive.
One such priest is the eponymous hero of the tale, played by Paul Bettany, who bears a huge tattooed crucifix on his forehead. When vampires attack an isolated outpost on the fringes of the wasteland and kidnap his teenage niece Lucy (Lily Collins, daughter of Genesis drummer Phil Collins), the Priest asks for permission to rescue her. The omnipotent Monsignor (Christopher Plummer) refuses, so the priest arms himself and sets off an unauthorised mission. He is accompanied by the young and naïve sheriff Hicks (Can Gigandet, from the recent Burlesque, etc). The Priest finds himself up against Black Hat (Karl Urban), a former priest who has been turned into a vampire, which has given him additional powers and strength.
This is the third film in which Bettany has played a renegade, unorthodox religious character but his role here is probably the most physical and he brings an intensity to his performance. (Bettany also played a sadistic albino assassin in priestly garbs in The Da Vinci Code, and in the recent Legion he played an avenging angel defending a remote outpost against zombies.) Urban seems to be channelling Clint Eastwood circa the early 70s with his role as the smooth vampire who is the priest’s nemesis. The two face off against each other atop a speeding train.
Taiwanese martial arts star Maggie Q acquits herself well as another vampire slaying priestess. And Gigandet, who plays one of the vampire clan in the successful Twilight franchise, finds himself here playing a fearless vampire slayer. Christopher Plummer brings his usual sense of dignity to his role, although he is given little to do. And Stephen Moyer, from TV series True Blood, etc, has a small role here as the priest’s brother.
Director Scott Stewart comes from a background in visual effects, which serves him well with his depiction of a stark, forbidding and desolate dystopian world in this CGI-heavy mix of horror and futuristic fantasy. Much of the film looks decidedly fake, as if it was shot in front of a green screen! Stewart also directed the similarly post-Apocalyptic Legion, which shares a number of themes and ideas with this film, and he borrows shamelessly from a raft of far superior genre classics. The wasteland setting and the amoral tone of the violence remind audiences of the classic western films of the late great Sergio Leone. Most of the slow motion ballet-like action is borrowed from martial arts movies.
Priest is another film that has been retrofitted for 3D, but as usual the visuals are rather gloomy and oppressive. Apart from a couple of striking action sequences though, the process adds little to the film itself. The cinematography by veteran Don Burgess (Source Code, Forrest Gump, etc) is crisp.
The film runs for a thankfully brisk and brief 88 minutes, so is never in danger of overstaying its welcome. But the ending suggests that there could well be an unnecessary sequel somewhere down the track.