The Film: Priest (2011)
The Principals: Director: Scott Charles Stewart. Starring: Paul Bettany, Maggie Q, Cam Gigandet, Stephen Moyer, Brad Douriff, Madchen Amick, Christopher Plummer and Karl Urban as “Black Hat”.
The Premise: In an alternate reality where vampires and humans have waged war for centuries, peace has been reached thanks to the work of “priests”, a sort of super-soldier/clergy employed by the theocratic totalitarian government. Long retired, these priests now find themselves useless and unwanted, that is until an attack in the outer regions catches the attention of the most badass of all priests, “Priest” (Paul Bettany). Priest has a personal tie to the attack, as does the young sheriff that brings him the news (Cam Gigandet), and despite the orders of Monsignor in charge (Christopher Plummer) the two men head out of the safety of the dystopian city and into the post-apocalyptic wastelands to confront the vampire menace and to save an innocent girl. But they face more than just mindless, blood-sucking beasts. A former priest turned new breed of vampire awaits them (Karl Urban) and he has a plan that will once again ignite the war between man and vampire and possibly topple civilization itself.
Is It Good: No, it’s not good. And it’s kind of too bad, because Priest has a lot of ingredients that I tend to enjoy. I love me some horror, I love me some post-apocalypse, and in general I enjoy a good, comic booky genre mash-up. I confess to finding guilty pleasure in the mid-budget horror/action genre that generates Resident Evil and Underworld movies despite the fact that those franchises are the very definition of mediocre. Priest could have fit in comfortably with those franchises, and even had the potential to be better than them. But the film is wholly unsuccessful despite some nice looking design and action sequences, and if the terrible box office returns on this are any indication, we will never see another adventure in the world of Priest. This is probably a small blessing.
The problems start with the casting. Paul Bettany is a good actor and I can see him in many roles, but he just does not work as a western-style, Man With No Name badass. Forgive me Father Paul, but your poncey Britishness comes through no matter how hard you try to disguise it in a Clint Eastwood hoarse whisper. It’s a dull and dire performance. This could have been countered if Cam Gigandet managed to bring a spark to the proceedings, but if you’ve seen this guy in anything else you know he’s a charisma vacuum of the highest order. His role would have been ideal for someone with a sardonic charm — a Han Solo to Priest’s Jedi. But no, we get the guy best known for his forgettable role in Twilight just sort of scowling at things and pointing his stupid, non-sensical gun at the camera. Then there’s Karl Urban, who does his best to chew scenery as the villain, but just doesn’t really have a role other than that he gets to wear a cool hat. In fact the script acknowledges this by literally naming him “Black Hat”. Maggie Q fares best as “Priestess” (groan) because she’s the one most comfortable in the action sequences, but again, there’s nothing to her character besides some unrequited longing for Bettany. None of the rest of the characters register much at all, including a wasted Christopher Plummer, clearly picking up a paycheck.
Bettany had worked with Stewart on the director’s equally unimpressive previous film Legion, and you have to wonder if this wasn’t some sort of weird two-fer deal they had worked out. Legion also had a religious theme/post apocalypse thing going, but as bad as it was, at least it had a slight sense of humor. Priest doesn’t; it is woefully po-faced to the point of abject misery, and all the wire-fu in the world can’t give it any levity. The dialogue is where this is most apparent; everyone either talks in a clipped, minimal manner or they spew corny, comic-book melodrama and have exchanges like — Black Hat: “Join me, brother!” Priest: “Never!” Thanks guys, I’ve seen Empire Strikes Back. I don’t know if injecting some wit would have necessarily helped things – in the writers’ hacky hands I could easily see wit just translating as one-liners – but the damn movie needed something to evoke the occasional chuckle, or at least a smirk. Hell, even The Road Warrior has a grim sort of wit. It can be done, even in the wasteland.
It’s too bad because there’s an OK story here, even if it doesn’t adhere at all to the Korean manga on which it is based. I don’t care about that anyway. But the story isn’t so great or original to save the film from its other mortal flaws. Even as eye-candy the film gets monotonous the further they get into the wastes, and the vampires are gooey CGI creatures that are a direct lift from some video game I don’t play. The climactic showdown between Priest and Black Hat on a moving train is kind of cool, but isn’t anything you haven’t seen before. The end makes some disappointing test-marketed maneuvers that strip the story of potential gravitas and also pathetically leaves room for a sequel that no one wants and that we’ll never see. This Priest won’t be getting another sermon.
Is It Worth A Look?: Only if you (shamefully) can’t get enough of this sort of horror/sci-fi/action hybrid and are fully aware of the inevitable disappointment these types of films always deliver. Then sure, go nuts.
Random Anecdote: Maggie Q had a crush on Christopher Plummer because of Sound of Music, and was giddy when he knew who she was on set.
Cinematic Soulmates: Underworld, Resident Evil.