Review: Priest (2011)

Priest

Rating

Director
Scott Stewart
Screenplay
Cory Goodman (Graphic Novel: Min-Woo Hyung)
Length
87 min.
Starring
Paul Bettany, Karl Urban, Cam Gigandet, Maggie Q, Lily Collins, Brad Dourif, Stephen Moyer, Christopher Plummer, Alan Dale, Madchen Amick
MPAA Rating
PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, disturbing images and brief strong language.

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Review
Every genre has its missteps. It’s hard to create a film that hasn’t been seen before and twist it into a new form that the audience will enjoy. Priest is the kind of film that tries very hard, adapting a popular graphic novel with some unique elements, yet ends up feeling common and unexceptional.

Set in a pseudo-futuristic society where a costly and violent war between humans and vampires has left the land and the people scarred, battered and looking to the Church for protection. Taking its cues from the Catholic Church, graphic novelist Min-Woo Hyung created a vast organization that has taught specially selected individuals to become the ultimate vampire killing force. Trained in advanced combat techniques, the Priests traveled the land protecting the populace from the nighttime menace.

The film opens in the recent past near the end of a long and bloody conflict. A group of Priests have infiltrated a massive hive of vampires hoping to destroy its queen. The trap is sprung and they must flee for their life, but not before one of their number (Karl Urban) is dragged into the depths leaving the others to flee. Transformed into a human-vampire hybrid, Black Hat (Urban) begins enacting a plan that will pull his former friend out into the wasteland.

Paul Bettany picks up yet another genre flick to add to his paycheck-earning descent into obscurity as the Priest Black Hat wishes to draw out. Related to the young girl captured at a midnight raid of his brother’s home, Priest seeks permission from the Church to reactivate him so he may leave the city and track her down. Monsignor Orelas (Christopher Plummer), head of the Church, denies his request and forbids him from leaving under penalty of excommunication. And, as you would expect, Priest disobeys his superior forcing the monsignor to reactive the Priesthood to go in search of this dangerous rogue priest. Whether Orelas is afraid Priest might uncover the truth or wanting to simply preserve the status quo is one of the few questions in the film left up to the audience’s interpretation.

Maggie Q plays the lone surviving Priestess who is part of the group in pursuit of Priest yet is betrayed by her own feelings for the man she fought beside for so many years. Cam Gigandet appears as the Wasteland sheriff in pursuit of the kidnapped girl Lucy (Lily Collins). Brad Dourif makes a brief apperance as a snake oil salesman trying to line his coffers with money conned off a fearful public, a public who has been abandoned by the church for living outside the protective walls of the city.

The desire seems to be to try to create an anti-church, pro-religion film where belief in a higher power saves while faith in the blind and selfish Church has the potential to destroy. While it feels like an accurate portrayal of the Crusades era Roman Catholic Church, it does what a lot of films have done and paints the Church as a bloated, self-absorbed and cruel institution fearful of change and desirous to keep peace by denying knowledge to the people. It’s a message I’m quite pleased with and were the surrounding movie not filled with bad performances, clumsy plotting, lugubrious pacing and a forced moral veneer, it might have been better.

Priest attempts to blend three distinct genres into a cohesive unit. The elements of science fiction, horror and western are not an uncommon choice to combine, but the resultant film fails to mix them well. There are two distinct designs in the film. The city is a Blade Runner-style metropolis, dirty and teeming with sorrow and suspicion where the public stands in line at confessionals to receive absolution. Outside the city, you have loose knit, mistrusting communities built on an Old West motif where the law carries a gun on his hip and the dusty environment is simply a way of existing not a lifestyle. The production design and costuming is the most praise worthy element of the film. It may be somewhat nice to look at but the superficiality only lasts for so long.

Director Scott Stewart who also helmed Bettany’s previous paycheck genre flick Legion seems to be fascinated with religious themes, choosing projects that seem to reject the idea of institutional religion while attempting to convey a sense of faithful perseverance. Yet, the film lacks a narrative drive that keeps the audience from wondering what absurdist statement will be made next. Priest works hard to keep the audience entertained by throwing seemingly pointless fight sequences at the viewer. While each tries to be cooler than the last, the film’s listless distractions between don’t keep the pace at an acceptable speed. How many lengthy scenes of one, two, three or more individuals riding futuristic motorcycles across long tracts of barren land do we need before we understand the concept. It’s like the perpetual visual changes in Spawn where the audience was drawn into Hell each time and treated to the same effect in each of a handful of different colors. It merely distracted from the action while extending the run time.

There will be a handful of genre fans who come out of this film rather pleased. They’ll forget most of the flaws and think on the coolest elements of the film. A cult might even be built around the parts that seemed most perfect with the dreariest aspects becoming mostly forgotten. Their self-manipulated memories will create a film that never existed. And when those impressions are questioned ten years down the road, they will insist that the film remains as they remembered and that those segments that they had shunted from their memory only enable them to appreciate the remainder more.
Review Written
May 15, 2011

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