Priest‘s opening features an animated segment introducing the film’s mythology that terrifyingly recalls Jonah Hex, as well as featuring a character called Hicks, whose name sounds a bit like… well, you know. Fortunately, despite those early scares, Scott Stewart’s movie proves to be a significant improvement over that abomination, though that’s as barbed a compliment as is possible to offer. Despite some potentially interesting ideas peeking out through the rubble, Priest satisfies itself with being a forgettable action flick that is third-rate in all areas of interest.
Paul Bettany again plays a trouble man of the cloth – it’s a strange career that gets typecast as an errant god-bothering action man, as is the case here, in The Da Vinci Code, Stewart’s previous movie Legion, while also popping up as Charles Darwin in 2009’s Creation – who is one of a line of preternaturally gifted fighters recruited by the Church to battle vampires in a post-apocalyptic world of walled cities and barren wastelands. Sound promising? Well, be ready to have that faith tested.
I don’t think Bettany is a terrible actor, but even Kate Hudson looked promising-ish in Almost Famous. Like her, he’s at the stage where his presence has become more of a warning sign than something to look forward to. In 2010, his filmography included Legion, Iron Man 2, The Tourist and Scooby Doo: Mystery Incorporated. Maybe once you’ve married Jennifer Connelly, life seems pretty OK and as long as everything’s stable at home, it’s worth picking up whatever paychecks come your way to keep things ticking over. It’s difficult to rationalise why else he would be making these dreadful choices. Either way, all he’s asked to do here is alter his expressions between scowls, which he does with soulless efficiency and a dreadful American accent.
The rest of the cast put more effort into making the most of their limited roles than seems strictly necessary. Maggie Q is a convincing action woman and can swirl a deadly crucifix yo-yo around her head with the best of them, managing to convey a trace of humanity in the scene where she suggests her sinful interest, wink wink, in ‘Priest’. (He doesn’t seem to have a name, though ‘Jerry’ suits him, I think). Karl Urban wears a black hat and talks in threatening whispers while nuzzling the necks of a bountiful teenage girl he has kidnapped, which makes him both a suitably nasty villain and also a bit of a hero, at least bringing far more fun to the table than Bettany’s Priest/Jerry. In an implausible turn of events, Christopher Plummer (!) appears as an unhelpful Monsignor of the Church ruling council, who has many secrets we’ll learn if this movie turns a profit. Cam Gigandet also appears, technically.
Considering the amount of detail put into the history behind the movie’s story, the plot goes in the most mundane direction imaginable. Priest’s niece is kidnapped by vampires. The Church no longer consider them a threat and refuse to grant him the right to go searching for her. This tips his challenged faith over the edge, he wanders out into the wasteland on his futurobike, discovers that a former friend-turned-megavampire is leading an army of bloodsuckers into the cities, so he and a lady priest (considering how conservative this Church seems to be, I find Maggie Q’s role unlikely) try to stop it.
There’s little more to it than that, although Stewart invokes many influences without giving any of them a purpose. The plot is similar to that of The Searchers and characterising Priest as a retired war vet determined to get his niece back from an old enemy is near-identical to John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards. Yet there’s nothing that justifies the similarity: the vampires aren’t presented with any greater nuance than a race who would delight in spending the rest of their days munching on the remains of humanity, so when Priest says he’ll kill his niece if she’s been turned – just as Edwards says he’ll kill Debbie if she’s living with the Comanches – it seems pretty reasonable, despite Sheriff Hicks’ (Gigandet) protests. The Searchers‘ examination of race relations is the one thing not carried over, thus making every other reference pointless.
By the same token, the presence of the Church as an oppressive force doesn’t lead anywhere, other than providing some aesthetics (crucifix weapons and a costume for Bettany, mostly). A shot of the Monsignor holding up a grail of wine as the blood of Christ seems to hint at a similarity between them and the vampires, which could have paid off the Searchers influences, but nothing comes of it. Yes, this is an action film and it doesn’t need to have any great depths, but if such notions are raised at all, why not do something with them? As films like The Matrix or Inception prove, intelligence and action aren’t in a zero sum game.
The action too is as you’d expect, laden with swooshy capes and dramatic poses. In fairness, the editing is decent and for the most part as it’s relatively easy to keep track of what is going on and where, not that the choreography conveys the aggression or anger needed to make the fight scenes credible. The characters appear to be going through the motions, being useless when they need to be, then impressive when the action sequence timer reaches an end and the enemy has to be defeated so we can move onto the next scene.
There’s much chatter about how highly skilled the priests are, though apart from an ability to do floaty jumps, nothing backs that up apart from the showy posing. The vampires don’t seem supernaturally threatening and apparently the key to shooting one down is to anticipate their trajectory, like the last ship in Space Invaders. (Insert ‘Anthology of Interest 2’ quote here). That’s the only wisdom Priest deems important enough to impart to his Sheriff companion, who responds by instead shooting down his only kill when it’s standing still. You’d think in the walled cities the vampires are planning to invade, one of the myriad heavily armed guards would work that out for themselves soon enough.
Priest feels like it should be an early year release rather than propping up the summer blockbusters. It’s not offensively awful, just never seems to have any ambitions beyond mediocrity, which it achieves intermittently. Any interesting ideas are soon swept under the carpet in favour of ticking off the expected boxes for this kind of low-grade actioner. It’s visually passable, tinted in the requisite blues and oranges, with 3D that isn’t the worst conversion I’ve seen. The cast are OK, the score might have been assembled from an album of 100 Generic Soundtracks, and the action is no more surprising. Though there’s predictably a set-up for a sequel, this would only be excusable if it is allowed to be called Priest 2: Ecumenical Boogaloo. In a summer that should yield far more polished and exciting action blockbusters, this doesn’t deserve a prayer.