Priest is a movie with unimaginative directing, a clichéd plot, and clunky dialogue given to bouts of didacticism and delivered by wooden acting, set in a vaguely futuristic version of the American west, complete with an overbearing, oppressive government and beset by soulless creatures driven only by their own rapacious desires. Even so, you can distinguish it from Atlas Shrugged because this time the rapacious creatures are the bad guys.
The movie is nominally based on Hyung Min-woo’s horror manhwa — the Korean analogue of the Japanese manga — though all it shares with that graphic novel are the title and some stylistic flourishes. Parts of it look similar to the old west setting from the novel, some of the characters have crosses on their foreheads, and we repeatedly see one character’s eye through a tear in the brim of his black hat, but that’s really about it. Gone are the paranormal and demonic aspects and the shambling undead, replaced by a “vampire” story, in the vein of I Am Legend and all the movies based on that novel.
Yes, the monsters are here called “vampires”, but they’re almost nothing like the classic model. As much as I’m generally against the teen-angstification of vampires, applying the word here just doesn’t fit the animalistic pack-hunters we see. And once you get beyond the word “vampire”, there’s really no religious or spiritual connotation at all. The “Church”, in this world, is modeled more on the government from 1984 or “Norsefire” from V for Vendetta than on any actual religious group. The entire purpose seems to be to take a straw-man potshot at religion when the real dystopian complaint is fascism.
But enough grinding of that axe; the vampires had been trouble for humanity for centuries until the Church trained the priests: an elite cadre of warriors tasked with finally purging all of their hives and driving the remainder back to “reservations” amounting to prisons. Humanity itself is consigned to its own reservations: massive walled cities outside of which lies only a devastated wasteland. Then the Church disbands the priests and leaves them to their fates — because the last thing any power-mad authoritarian regime wants is more troops to enforce their will. There’s a point in here about the shoddy treatment received by returning soldiers, but it’s made so ham-fistedly it was just embarrassing to watch.
Anyway, the nameless protagonist (Paul Bettany) is one of these Priests. He receives word from the sheriff (Cam Gigandet) of a town in the wasteland that his brother and sister-in-law have been murdered by vampires, and his niece, Lucy (Lily Collins), has been kidnapped. Against the direct orders of the leader of the Church (Christopher Plummer) — evidently being proactive in quashing even the rumor of a returning vampire threat would somehow work against the people’s trust in their government’s ability to provide security — the priest takes off into the wasteland. The Church sends four other priests after him, including one of his old — naturally nameless — companions-at-arms (Maggie Q). And of course he does find that a band of vampires are reorganizing, under the leadership of a mysterious man in a black hat (Karl Urban).
Scott Stewart’s previous feature was Legion — also starring Bettany — and the less said about that the better. I’ll just note that the Rotten Tomatoes consensus is that, “despite a solid cast and intermittent thrills, Legion suffers from a curiously languid pace, confused plot, and an excess of dialogue”, every word of which goes double for Priest. How this man keeps getting funding is an utter mystery.
Bettany isn’t an awful actor by any stretch of the imagination, but he was more interesting as the voice of JARVIS in Iron Man. Plummer and Urban are also wasted, though they at least embody stereotypes. The only actual character on screen was a two-scene cameo by Brad Dourif, whose talents were more wasted than anyone else.
On top of everything else it was overwhelmingly boring. I’m not above a pure popcorn movie — I enjoyed Sucker Punch and Dylan Dog: Dead of Night, and even Drive Angry — but even when these movies take themselves a bit too seriously they have to be fun, and Priest just isn’t. At under an hour and a half it’s very short, and yet it still feels light on the action. There’s nothing in the visuals that isn’t old and tired by this point, and most of it was ugly even when it was fresh. There are no twists or surprises or even stuff being thrown at the audience for a cheap scare. And to take an already dark palette, subject it to the dimming effects of 3-D, and then never actually use the 3-D for anything is just stupid.
Worth It: absolutely not.
Bechdel Test: fail.