Once upon a time, there was a film called Legion. It was a horror/action film with a Christian ideological bent starring Paul Bettany as a grizzled badass, directed by Scott Stewart. It was released in January of 2010 to immense critical bashing and a pitiful $17 million opening. In the interest of fairness, I’m sure it didn’t help that Avatar was still in theaters, yet this ill reception was still enough to send Screen Gems into a panic.
See, Screen Gems wasn’t just the studio responsible for Legion. They were also responsible for Priest, another horror/action film with a Christian ideological bent starring Paul Bettany as a grizzled badass, directed by Scott Stewart and set for release in October of that same year. Additionally, Priest was and is Screen Gems’ most expensive production ever, so it’s understandable that they’d rush to protect their investment ASAP.
Thus, the film was delayed from October 2010 to January 2011, ostensibly so the film could be post-converted to 3D (I decided to see this film in 2D just to spite them). The film was later delayed again to May 13th, presumably because early summer films pay better than films in January and because the only other wide release on that weekend was Bridesmaids. That it happened to be released on Friday the 13th was just a coincidence, I’m sure.
So, to sum up: We’ve got a film that’s been delayed multiple times, was post-converted to 3D and was made by an actor/director combo previously responsible for a recent flop. Oh, and did I mention that this film wasn’t screened for critics?
This is a film that had everything going against it. As a result, when my dad commissioned me for a review of the movie, I expected to come out of it brimming over with rage. That isn’t exactly what happened.
Let’s take it from the top: Priest opens with our nameless protagonist (Paul Bettany) walking into a vampire hive with a handful of his colleagues. One of them is played by Karl Urban, who utters “This feels [dramatic pause] like our graves,” courteously telling us from the first line of dialogue just how low this movie expects us to set the bar. Anyway, the vampires in the hive wake up and our Priests high-tail it out of there. Yet just before they can make it out entirely, Urban’s character is captured.
This is followed by a 2D-animated prologue giving us the backstory. Apparently, this whole story takes place in some alternate world in which humans and vampires have been at war since antiquity. Ultimately, the humans trained the Priests, humanity’s greatest weapon against the vampires and the reason why humanity won the war.
This is the point when I realized completely just how stupid the opening was. See, this is when I couldn’t help asking “Priests? What Priests? You mean the guys who just fled from a bunch of vampires and lost one of their own with barely a fight? Those Priests? The guys that got their asses handed to them two minutes ago are actually super-awesome vampire-killing holy ninjas?! *sigh* All right…”
Anyway, the vampires were all rounded up into reservations as humans go on living under the rule of The Clergy, a Christian-ish theocracy that evidently considers “1984” as the Third Testament (though maybe it’s giving the writers too much credit to assume they’ve read Orwell. I don’t know). The Clergy keeps its citizens under constant rule of religious law, though there are some who live outside the walls. One of these outsiders gets his family mauled by vampires and his daughter stolen. Fortunately for him, his brother is a Priest.
In open defiance of The Clergy’s insistence that the vampire threat is gone, Bettany (I did mention that his character doesn’t have a name, right?) goes out to avenge his brother. He does this with the full knowledge that so flagrantly disobeying The Clergy’s word will mark him for death. Yet whoever’s guarding the city was evidently nice enough to let this flagrant criminal leave through the gate’s front door without a struggle.
By now, you may have noticed my biggest problem with the movie: Its screenplay. Not only are there several blatant plot holes, but the dialogue is horrendous. It’s not an exaggeration to say that every single line of dialogue falls totally flat. There are so many lines here that might have come off as unintentional hilarity if only they weren’t being delivered by these actors.
Paul Bettany is a very good actor, but he just isn’t awesome enough to make the one-liners effective. Maggie Q has the opposite problem: She looks perfectly like an exotic and beautiful badass, yet she has no emotional range. The great Christopher Plummer is given nothing to do aside from being a two-dimensional tyrannical douchebag. Cam Gigandet plays the sidekick with nearly non-existent charisma and he’s saddled with a love interest who’s waaaay too young for him.
These actors are all clearly trying so hard to make this material work. The delivery ends up falling into an awkward “sweet spot,” as none of the actors are bad enough to completely humiliate themselves, yet none of them are good enough to elevate this terrible screenplay. The only one who comes remotely close is Karl Urban, and that’s entirely because he looks like the only one who’s having fun.
Visually, the film alternates between “dark and gritty” and “completely bleached out.” This is understandable, given the setting, though I wish the director could’ve used more colors than black, white, brown and green. Also, there were a few times when the dark scenes are punctuated by sudden, bright flashes of light that I personally found physically painful.
Really, the editing in this film is not very good at all. My favorite example comes in the first action scene, in which the entire screen goes completely black between two-second shots of characters running in slow-motion. While we’re on the subject, the action in this film is kinda… meh. I’ll grant that the weapons were inventive at times, but the presentation otherwise lacked tension. The score and sound design didn’t contribute any kind of weight and the visuals did nothing to make the stunts look any less laughably improbable. It also didn’t help that though the vampire designs were pretty cool, the CGI and makeup weren’t nearly good enough to provide the illusion that an actual flesh-and-blood creature was getting beaten.
I suppose I should also mention the film’s horror aspect, which was an abject failure. The jump scares in this movie are so predictable that you could set your watch to them. One of them even comes with an actual honest-to-God record scratching.
Last but not least, this film ends on a cliffhanger for a sequel. I realize that this particular movie has been in the can for quite a while, but I truly thought filmmakers knew better by now. It works for films which have sequels already greenlit (the Avengers films) and it kinda works with franchise pictures whose sequels are pretty much guaranteed from the outset (the Star Trek reboot, Sherlock Holmes). But when films with totally unknown futures like this one end on a cliffhanger for a sequel, it comes off as a desperate plea. It’s like the filmmakers are begging the audience to demand a sequel, promising a really great adventure in return. Sorry, but when a film is built for the sole purpose of setting up some different and better film (as with this one), I’m left wondering why the better movie wasn’t made instead of this one. If the filmmakers wanted to make the sequel so badly, they should’ve gone ahead and made the sequel the first entry instead of the second!
So with all of this, you’d expect this to be a bad film, right? Well… not entirely. I mean, it’s certainly not a good movie — the horrid screenplay alone guarantees that. Still, as hole-ly and predictable as the narrative is, the story is at least coherent and easily followed. The CGI may be sub-par, but it definitely isn’t “Syfy Original Movie” bad and it’s rather creatively used in places. The visuals may be uninspired, but the production design clearly shows a lot of time and planning. The actors may be given crappy dialogue to work with, but they’re all taking this film seriously and putting a ton of effort into it.
It might be tempting to call this a mindless popcorn action flick, except that the action in this film isn’t one-tenth as pulse-pounding as anything that can currently be seen in Fast Five or even Thor. This all might add up to a “so bad it’s good film,” yet there’s precious little of the campiness that marks such films and any moments of humor — unintentional or otherwise — are few and far between.
When all is said and done, Priest isn’t really bad so much as it’s just bland. It’s not even mediocre, it’s just unmemorable. A total non-entity of a movie that will be forgotten immediately upon viewing. This film is an oatmeal sandwich on white bread, served with a glass of room-temperature water. I wouldn’t say that it’s boring, but I wouldn’t say that it’s enjoyable, either.
…What were we talking about, again?