A film review by Craig J. Koban May 16, 2011

  

PRIEST ½j

2011, R, 87 mins.

Paul Bettany: Priest / Cam Gigandet: Hicks / Maggie Q: Priestess / Christopher Plummer: Monsignor Orelas / Karl Urban: Black Hat

Directed by Scott Stewart / Written by Cory Goodman, based on the Min-Woo Hyung graphic novels

SCREENED IN
3D

 PRIEST is barely a movie.  It barely has a premise.  Hell, it barely has ideas, and hardly enough to barely sustain its already miniscule 87-minute running time.  You know you are in serious trouble when the entire concept of a film is explained within its first 8-10 minutes and then it does absolutely nothing with it for its remaining time.  What we have here is one unholy mess of a film, a generic, flavorless, muddled, and derivative hodgepodge of Western film clichés, religious horror scares, monster mayhem, kung-fu/sci-fi theatrics, and a whole lot of unintentional, B-grade worthy preposterousness.

PRIEST is based on a Korean graphic novel – unread by me – and was directed by Scott Stewart, a filmmaker that – please pardon the pun – I have pretty much lost all faith in.  The visual effects artist turned filmmaker helmed, you may recall, another inordinately putrid religious horror thriller in last year’s LEGION, which was howlingly awful even on a basic inception level: it involved angels – packing heat and maces and wearing body armor – that were sent down to Earth from God so that they could eradicate all of humanity at his bidding.  Yeah, I know what you’re thinking, with all of the infinite and omnipotent powers of the Lord, why would He need Uzi-wielding angels to wipe out mankind?  Couldn’t he just do it with a blink of an eye?   Awww…skip it. 

Now comes this film, which also has a religious aspect to it, not to mention people of strident faith battling against hordes of creatures in an unearthly war.  It also marks the second pairing of Stewart with star Paul Bettany, who played an angel in LEGION that told God to essentially kiss his ass and he proceeded to protect the humans from His apocalyptic plans.  Now he plays, you got it, a warrior priest of an alternate, post-apocalyptic future that has supernatural and martial arts abilities to fight off endless blood ravenous vampires.  Last time I checked, the Bible has never been used in a movie by men of God to conceal crucifixes that can spring out into throwing stars, but I digress. 

The film’s back story is very quickly revealed during an animated opening sequence – the only modestly inspired one all throughout – that sets up how humanity and vampires have been warring for centuries.   For reasons never fully explained, it left the world a MAD MAX-inspired wasteland and the Catholic Church has become the predominant socio-political force.  They, in turn, established a strike force of Nosferatu-ass-kicking clerics to fight off the creatures, and the tide of the war turned to the point where the remaining vampires have been interned at reservations and the remaining people of the planet have been living in a mega city that is fenced off from the vampires.  The priests themselves, after all of this, have been left to themselves in the city. 

 

 

On a remote farm an agriculturalist named Owen (a not-too-subtle STAR WARS reference if there ever were one) has his land raided by a surprise vampire attack, which leaves his daughter Lucy (Lily Collins) kidnapped by the monsters for reasons unknown.  Word of this gets to her uncle, Bettany’s aforementioned Priest, which really pisses him off since he really, really hates vampires.  He approaches the chief leader of the Catholic faith and the overseer of the city, Monsignor Orelas (Christopher Plummer, in a what’s-he-doing-here? performance) for permission to fight the vampires and rescue his niece, but Orelas steadfastly refuses.  Yet, in pure anti-hero fashion, the Priest-With-No-Name decides to go on his mission anyway. 

Priest does not fly solo on his mission.  He comes across a wastelander sheriff named Hicks (Cam Gigandet) whom is also Lucy’s boyfriend and has his own personal reasons for rescuing her.  While the pair goes on the hunt, the furious Orelas back home sends a squad of his best priests after Priest, which includes one female warrior priest named…Priestess (Maggie Q), who secretly carries a torch for Priest, but their code of celibacy means that Priest and Priestess can’t do the no-pants dance.  Every major player eventually hooks up for a confrontation with a mysterious “Familiar” (a man that has been bitten by a vampire, played by Karl Urban) that has a past and some issues with Priest himself. 

PRIEST is one of those brain-punishingly perplexing films that never once seems interested in presenting and then developing its world’s parameters to any satisfactory level.  Yes, the makers set up the world of the film, but there is virtually no follow-through: ideas and concepts are either haphazardly explained or not at all.  Like, for instance, the walled cities that humanity live in have dark clouds over them that bask it in perpetual twilight and it always appears to be raining ash at all times.  Is it not a bad idea to have a city in darkness all the time when it needs to be a safe haven from vampires?  Also, how do its citizens not die of respiratory illness from the lack of clean air?  How did the humans manage to exile themselves into the city while placing the vampires in reservations?  Did they sign a truce?  Not likely, seeing as the vampires seem incapable of rationale thought.  And why, for Pete’s sake, would people farm in the middle of nowhere where growing crops seems impossible, not to mention that these locations would also leave these people susceptible to vampire attacks? 

My head scratching continued during the film.  How did the Church seize control?  Moreover, what is the nature of the supernatural abilities of the priests themselves?  How can they defy gravity?  Why do they sport tattoos of the crucifix on their foreheads?  Why did the city’s people treat the priests like outsiders and societal fringe figures, especially since they were essentially instrumental in saving humanity?  Lastly, what possible benefit would there be for the vampires to have a human/vampire half-breed among them?  And speaking of the vampires themselves, their design is perhaps the most lackluster and uninspired I’ve ever seen.  They are essentially eyeless humanoid creatures with teeth and salivating goo and they never once – and I mean ever – occupy a single solitary frightening moment in the film.  Watching PRIEST made me fondly recall last year’s very underrated DAYBREAKERS, which envisioned scary and intimidating bloodsuckers.  PRIEST’s vamps are just lame and dull byproducts of assembly line CGI tinkering. 

The human characters don’t fare that much better.  Cam Gigandet is so bland and stiff that he might as well be a wooden mannequin throughout the film.  Christopher Plummer hams it up with lines of piercing silliness (“To go against the Church is to go against God!!”).  Karl Urban, a decent actor, is saddled with an undeveloped villain.  And then there is Bettany, who astoundingly duplicates the same listless, murmuring, and grunting performance he did in LEGION.  His attempts at an Eastwoodian timbre are laughable, especially when paired with forced attempts at frowning, glaring and looking mean.  There are times when he growls out his lines with such an expressionless undertone that even the theater’s best 7.1 digital audio cranked to 11 would barely be able to register it. 

Two final things: Firstly, PRIEST was delayed to theatres for a upconversion to 3D, and considering the film’s already dark, dreary, and muddy palette, reducing the imagery down to levels where they are so dim you can’t make out the action is a sacrilegious mistake in itself.  Secondly, it’s funny, but for a film that’s so steeped in the Catholic faith, PRIEST contains almost zero commentary or insight on Jesus’ teachings.  I am no man of faith by any stretch, but didn’t Jesus’ moral teachings preach unconditional and self-sacrificing love for all, including one’s enemies and turning the other cheek?  In PRIEST, its followers of Christ seem to misinterpret it as “kill every last mother fucking vampire in existence.”  Man, this film’s Catholics are a violent, rabble-rousing bunch.

  H O M E