I’m a fan of many film genres and so, too, it would appear, is Priest‘s director, Scott Stewart. For Priest encompasses elements from sci-fi, western, vampire, horror, fantasy, revenge and post-apocalyptic movies, at times in a gloriously fun fashion and in its weaker parts, playing like a ‘best of’ rehash from a truckload of movies from previous decades, including Blade Runner, Star Wars, The Matrix, Mad Max 2 and Blade 2.
Priest isn’t afraid to aim high in its aspirations and deserves praise for doing so, with the backstory plastered over a bloody and enjoyable animated credits sequence, leading into the live action, high walled, dystopian city that now safely houses humanity after the vampire scourge threatened to take over.
The cityscapes and streets affectionately homage Ridley Scott’s vision, while adding the big brother broadcast element seen in Equilibrium, with Christopher Plummer’s sinister face (instead of Sean Pertwee’s) adorning the sides of buildings, which are also branded by stylised cross insignias.
Indeed, Scott Stewart’s film shares many similarities with Kurt Wimmer’s: a fascistic state ruled by fear, guardians of the state capable of being a threat, a rebellious brooding British lead with a gruff American accent, even gun-fu (though the fight scenes never quite match Christian Bale’s helmet smashing antics).
Sadly, though, as with the much underappreciated Daybreakers, no sooner have you admired and adjusted to the sights and sounds of this new future society, then the film quickly shifts to the much more budget-friendly, familiar climes of the desert wasteland, where the movie spends the majority of its all too brief eighty-eight minute runtime.
The always excellent Paul Bettany leads proceedings as the titular Priest, channelling parts of his rosary clutching psychosis from The Da Vinci Code, full of brood and conflict, on a mission to save his niece from the villainous clutches of former brother in arms, Karl Urban.
Urban clearly relishes every second of his drawling, vampire cowboy role (he’s a huge fan of westerns) and is an actor I’ve been following since his breakthrough role as Eomer in The Two Towers. So more’s the pity that his screen time seems to be far too short, as he’s noticeable by his absence.
Bettany, under Stewart’s guidance for the second time after Legion, proves to be a strangely apt action hero, throwing himself (literally in the film’s better moments) into the fight scenes with an aggressive vigour. By his side is the fantastically named Cam Gigandet, who plays the young, trigger happy sheriff with the requisite amount of brash narrow mindedness. Though I have difficulty seeing him as a hero, after his less friendly roles in the likes of Never Back Down and The O.C. Here’s hoping his Twilight followers watch Priest and appreciate vampires’ true, cinematic nastiness.
Maggie Q also appears as a fellow priest, but suffers from having arguably the most clichéd character to flesh out. She’s loved Bettany’s Priest for years, but their faith and his devotion to a love he left behind has meant she’s suffered in silence. But worse, she only has one brief action scene to shine in.
Even genre favourite Brad Dourif gets a few minutes of screen time, as a snake oil salesman, but is gone in the blink of an eye, with a potential part in the film’s bigger plans never exploited.
In fact, the actors’ roles summarise Priest‘s best and worst traits. It’s solid, at times beautiful, but cliché-ridden and cut short. The film constantly seems to take two steps forward and one step back. When the two leads’ first vampire fight hits, it incorporates some great violence, made more threatening by the humanoid familiars, then piles on the reasonable CGI beasties, and the mix works well. When the second encounter happens, it’s just one big CGI beastie, which is in no way scary and the film falls flat.
There’s an abundance of recent films that have openly invited comparisons to computer games, but it’s one I normally tend to shrug off. (I evenliked Battle: Los Angeles, despite similar criticism.) Yet, Priest really did have that fault, made more noticeable after a good start to the action.
I never understand why bigger monsters seem to be seen as a bigger threat. If you’re dealing with vampires, the biggest danger isn’t being swallowed by a big monster. It’s the fear of infection or being torn and devoured piece by piece. By way of comparison, just look at Paul W S Anderson’s Resident Evil. Instead of guns versus zombies, there was a pointless Cube rip-off. I wonder how much of a coincidence it is, with both films released by Screen Gems, that the early promise of originality mixed with potential horror violence, give way to PG-13/12A tailoring, and therefore, cash-friendly stability.
If the above issues are a matter of taste and opinion, then there’s one major flaw in Priest that is absolutely irrefutable: the dialogue. I can deal with clichéd and broadly drawn characters. They’re par for the course in this kind of movie, as are the odd spoken clangers. (I’ll confess here to even warming to Bill Pullman’s speech from Independence Day. Oh, yes.) But, my god, every other line in Priest is a near indigestible rock.
Things get so bad that you can start to predict every one-liner, to near spoof-level heights. There’s a drinking game to be had with every clichéd utterance and movie reference (there are characters called Hicks and Uncle Owen, a black-hooded Bettany races across the desert on a speeding bike like a biblical Darth Maul), which will end with even the most hardened drinker in an unconscious mess.
Against the contrivances, there’s still much to enjoy, with the production design (including all manner of futuristic guns, gadgets and bikes) and Christopher Young’s superbly rousing score being standouts, while Stewart’s direction and composition really does excel at times. I thoroughly enjoyed his debut feature, Legion, for dealing out a solid B-movie fix, setting about its familiar business with a wry sense of humour, a humour that the all too dour-faced Priest would have been utterly lifted by.
I should also mention the 3D, for the sake of completion, which seemed passable, but unnecessary, especially when the heavy 3D glasses made my nose hurt and distracted me from what was happening on screen, as I shifted them about.
Still, if Priest spawns into the franchise it would love to be, then I’d be more than happy to sit through more, and I’ll no doubt watch Priest again on Blu-ray at home, with some almost requisite beer.
With an increased budget and runtime, more intimate horror-based action and a complete dialogue overhaul, Scott Stewart could really deliver on all fronts. But for now, it’s much fairer to compare Priest to the similar work by his peers (including Wimmer’s Ultraviolet), than any involving electric sheep.