After the Biblical mayhem of Legion, visual effects specialist turned director Scott Charles Stewart and British thesp Paul Bettany get back together for another religious romp in the desert. Angela Burton puts on her 3D glasses and gets ready for the sun to go down.
Based on the Korean graphic novel of the same name, Priest is set in an alternate timeline where humanity has long been engaged in a war against vampires. The audience is given the backstory via a nifty animation sequence: the church provided security for humanity in the form of walled cities, and created warrior priests to rid their annihilated world of the vampire menace, sectioning off the creatures in their own reservations. But once the priests’ task was fulfilled and peace reigned, the church began to fear the power of their creations and the order was disbanded, leaving its members to find homes among ordinary people who shunned and loathed them.
The church has control of society, ruling repressively through Big Brother-style broadcasts that remind the populace of the necessity of absolution. But outside the city walls, in the wastelands, another community lives. It's here that the first post-war vampire attack takes place: the kidnapping of a young woman named Lucy (Lily Collins) which sets up our story. The local sheriff, Hicks (Cam Gigandet), seeks out her uncle, a warrior priest known simply as Priest (Paul Bettany) to help him rescue his sweetheart. As the church does not acknowledge the vampires and won't sanction the rescue, Priest must go against the church’s ruling to track her down.
There's a slight love story between the captured woman and sheriff as well as a hint of forbidden desire between the Priest and a Priestess (Maggie Q) who helps on the quest but – quite refreshingly for lovers of pure action and for its target audience of young teens – this flick does not descend into unlikely romance.
Priest is a genre-buster, with sci-fi elements in its tech (futuristic guns and bikes) and dystopian setting; a Western backdrop of sandy, parched land and cowboy hat-clad bad guy (Karl Urban); fantasy horror with its vampires antagonists out for blood; and a revenge thriller plot. With so much going on it’s also evident in every scene that there's been liberal borrowing from other works. Priest’s strongest elements are its visually impressive setting and its construction of a future totalitarian society – but here again the debt to novels like George Orwell's 1984 and films including Farenheit 451, the already derivative Equilibrium and V for Vendetta is too clear to be ignored and too familiar to have impact.
The film's snappy running time of 87 minutes leaves the plot somewhat truncated and the action rushed. Between action set-pieces the character development and interaction is superficial, giving the audience little chance to connect with them, or care who lives and who dies. The dialogue also leaves much to be desired, peppered as it is with bad one-liners and clichés.
Rushing the plot also left quite a few question marks over certain aspects of the film. Without the benefit of having read the graphic novel Priest is based on, there’s quite a bit of guesswork involved in following the mythology: the vampires are aided by 'familiars' and further research shows that these are humans mutated by a vampire bite though the film reveals little of this until the end. Speaking of the vampires, they must be pretty clever creatures: we’re told that they’re born without eyes, which is what makes them soulless according to the church but they don’t seem to have noses or ears, just a big-fang filled mouth, so how exactly do they “see”?
Bettany doesn’t hold back and manages to throw himself (literally) at the oncoming vampires, a permanent scowl on his face that would cause Edward Cullen to shed his sparkles in terror. Gigandet gets to play a role diametrically opposed to his ruthless, vampiric hunter in Twilight, and he’s likeable enough if perhaps a bit forgettable. Urban is most notable for his absence, the bad guy-shaped hole in the movie. And Brad Dourif makes a brief appearance in a part that could have become interesting but in a rushed attempt to get to the next action scene the potential was never explored.
The female roles are nearly non-existent and what there is of them is rubbish. We have Lucy's mother (Mädchen Amick) who is killed within the first 10 minutes, Lucy herself who's a helpless captive and the love-sick Priestess who gets only a brief but cool fighting sequence in which Maggie Q can exhibit her screen combat skills.
As with Daybreakers, it's nice to see the return of the old-school vampire. These aren’t the friendly-but-misunderstood variety, these are creatures of the night who want nothing more than to rip your throat out.
Ultimately if you’re in the mood for some brainless action, smothered in slow-motion effects, Priest is a lot of fun, just enough to make up for all its problems. In terms of the 3D, however, there’s just no need.
Rating on a scale of 5 bullets with crosses carved into them: 3
Release date: UK: May 6; US: May 13
Directed by: Scott Charles Stewart
Screenplay by: Cory Goodman
Based on graphic novel by: Min-Hoo Hyung
Cast: Paul Bettany, Karl Urban, Cam Gigandet, Maggie Q, Lily Collins, Brad Dourif, Stephen Moyer, Christopher Plummer
Rating: UK: 12A; US: PG-13
Running time: 87 minutes