Directed by Scott Charles Stewart
A cool post-apocalyptic vampire flick with a badass vampire killer, characters you care about, quasi-religious overtones, and some genuine pathos. But enough about Stake Land; I’m here to review Priest.
The moment the opening back-story was told in the form of anime, I experienced a serious flashback to last year’s Jonah Hex debacle. Little did I realize at that moment that eighty some odd minutes later I’d be walking out of the theater realizing I had just watched this year’s Jonah Hex. That’s not an entirely fair comparison since I at least found Jonah Hex to be laughably bad. This is just crap. I’ve not read the graphic novel on which Priest is based so I can only assume that Hollywood has once again taken cool source material, stripped it down to its bare bones, and attempted to make it cool in all the wrong ways.
Priest starts off with loads of potential. The world of Priest – a horror hybrid of Judge Dredd cyberpunk and Wild West steampunk – is an intriguing one. The idea of a vampire war leading to a world turned into a totalitarian theocracy dominated by a church filling the air with Orwellian platitudes, forcing citizens at gunpoint to confess their sins in automated sidewalk confessional booths and the notion of a select group of vampire-slaying monks supposedly hand-selected by God being phased out now that the war is over and the Church’s hierarchy refusing to believe vampires still exist, considering it blasphemy to even speak it, left me wanting to know more. The revelation that outside the confines of the dark mega-cities lie frontier towns straight out of the Wild West right down to its denizens walking and talking like Tom Nix cowboys – okay, that part was a little too hokey for me.
Still, there’s a world of potential here and none of it is tapped by a script that reduces every single person, place, and thing to an unimaginative cliché that grows progressively worse with every passing minute. By the finale I found myself angry at the simple-mindedness of it all. A human name is credited with the screenplay, but based on the heinously perfunctory dialogue alone, I refuse to believe this screenplay wasn’t just typed out by some automated screenwriting program.
The saddest thing about Paul Bettany is that he already played a similar character in the jaw-droppingly bad Legion (same director, similar results) yet made more of it in that idiotic flick than in this stale production. We know he’s a badass because we see him kill vampires with ease. We know he’s got deep faith because he has that Ash Wednesday tattoo on his forehead. We know he’s experiencing spiritual turmoil because he repeatedly says early on that he has questions, not that anything comes of that aspect of his personality because doing so would require both interest in character development and an ounce of philosophical thought inserted into the storyline.
Looking and sounding like he might have been confused into thinking he actually was playing a villainous vampire cowboy in Jonah Hex 2, Karl Urban allows himself to be completely wasted as a warrior priest turned vampire that for some reason has waited until now to bring about the destruction of mankind for reasons given so little thought the script barely bothers to give him any motivation at all.
Urban sent a vampire horde to kill the frontiersman brother (and his wife played by Madchen Amick, making me wonder what the hell happened to her career) of Paul Bettany’s nameless Priest (whom I seriously wanted to start calling “Father Dredd”) and kidnapped their 18-year-old daughter to use as bait. Whatever personal dynamic there is between him and Priest is impossible to give a damn about because their entire history consists of a rushed flashback where they exchange maybe two or three brief lines of dialogue. There’s also a surprise revelation about the girl meant to give more emotional weight to Priest’s need to rescue her that is as predictable as it is lame.
Priest has to stop his former colleague and his trainload of vampires before they reach the city. Once again, Hollywood has presented us with a movie villain whose plan might have worked if he didn’t go out of his way to spite himself. If he hadn’t intentionally lured Priest to come after him, nobody would have ever known what was coming until it was too late. He should start a support group for inept supernatural movie villains with “Jumby” from The Unborn and the Devil from Season of the Witch.
Every embarrassing sentence out of Karl Urban’s mouth during the climactic confrontation with Priest sounds like it was culled from a book of stock movie villain lines. ”Join me, brother, and we can rule together” or something like that. “Your faith has failed you” - whatever the hell that means in the context of a kung fu fight atop a speeding train. Just cringe inducing.
Now Urban isn’t a true vampire; he’s what is called a familiar: a human turned into a vampire that can survive in sunlight unlike the real vampire that made him. The real vampires look more like Aliens and live in mountainous hives. They jump around hissing, clawing and snapping at victims just like an Alien. There’s a weird scene in a frontier town where familiars talk about serving their masters; how does one serve what appears to be a mindless monster with no means of communication?
Horrifying as it for me to say this, Stephen Sommers may have been on to something after all. These vamps prefer to sleep in membranous sacks generated from their own slimy excretions, not all that unlike Dracula’s winged froggy offspring that hatched from wasp sacks in Van Helsing. I refuse to live in a world where anything seen in Van Helsing may prove accurate to vampire lore.
Cam Gigandet is his usual awful self as young frontier lawman Hicks, so desperate to save that niece he’s in love with before she gets turned into a vampire and Priest is forced to kill her, too. At first it appears the film is setting up a mentorship storyline with Priest teaching Hicks the tricks of the vampire-killing trade, only for all that to fall by the wayside once Maggie Q as La Priest Nikita joins them on their hunt. The relationship between her and Priest feels like it would have romantic subtext if this script had any comprehension of what subtext is.
Need further proof of how badly the script kills the movie? All the city scenes are nighttime. Priest tells Hicks there is only darkness in the cities because the sun doesn’t shine there anymore. Why is this? We’ll never know because Priest just drops the topic and walks away immediately after stating such. That’s not the kind of fact a movie like this should just throw out there and then not bother to explain. Same goes for the vampire queen subplot that goes nowhere. I really could go on and on, much like the countless shots of characters speeding across the desert on their funky motorcycles the director was so clearly enamored with.
For some the action scenes might be enough to salvage this drivel. Kung fu, slow motion kung fu, explosions, desert motorcycle chases: save for one or two inspired kills, I found the action to be quite unremarkable. A plethora of stabbings, dismemberments, and jugular ripping; all irritatingly edited to assure the PG-13 rating. Even the 3D does nothing to make Priest standout.
Truth be told, if Priest had been a Syfy original movie made on their typically low budget, I seriously doubt anyone would have much positive to say aside from acknowledging its neat premise. Since Priest has some slick production values, icky monsters, and copious amounts of kung fu, I’ve no doubt it will get a much undeserved pass from some. I mean look how many Resident Evil movies there have been.
1 1/2 out of 5
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