Director: Scott Stewart
Writer: Cory Goodman (screenplay)/ Hyung min-woo (comic)
Starring: Paul Bettany, Maggie Q, Karl Urban
Scott Stewart and Paul Bettany previously teamed up for 2010′s Legion, an effects-driven slice of apocalyptic sci-fi that pitched its British star as a renegade angel intent on protecting mankind, particularly the inhabitants of a midwest USA diner, from zombie-angel annihilation. A promising premise, yet the film took itself a tad too seriously, making its set up one that was more silly than escapist and enjoyable. Sadly, this po-faced seriousness permeates their second team up too, the multi-genre spanning Priest, and with similar results.
Described variously, but not exhaustively, as a sci-fi/comic book/vampire/western/steampunk concoction, with revenge movie tropes and martial arts thrown into the already hefty mix, Priest, based on the Tokypop comic book of the same name, borrows and pilfers from all over the shop. As narrated by a stylish comic-book animated opening credits sequence, the world has been fighting vampires for centuries, the blood-thirsty critters finally defeated by the Church, the holy men of God of the title taking on new roles of keepers of the peace as mankind hides itself within walled cities akin to Ridley Scott‘s ‘on-world’ colonies of Los Angeles 2019. Crucifix-tattooed wanna-be Jedis (complete with hooded capes primed for dour-faced skulking), the priests were once glorious warriors, but vampires have not been seen for along time and the men of the cloth’s purpose has disappeared along with with them.
Opting to maintain a sense of security, the church adheres to the mantra that the days of battle between the two are long gone, but Bettany’s monosyllabic vamp hunter is forced to break from the party line, as it were, and disobey both church and his solemn vows – “to go against the church is to go against God” – when his niece is kidnapped by a Karl Urban‘s nasty neck biter. Upon hearing said news he sets out for the wastelands the other side of civilization’s walls, teaming up with Cam Gigandet‘s outlands sheriff, who has his own personal interest in the girl’s safety, and Maggie Q‘s old school priest.
Priest has plenty of ideas to be getting on with, some of which are rather spiffing, it has to be said. Envisaging religious institutions as a despotic Big Brother-styled organisation is a neat touch, as are the ‘familiars’ – humans bitten by vampires and forced to live as outcasts scavenging in the wastelands. The vamps themselves are a far cry from the shimmering emo-dreams of Twilight, and even the more classical portrayals of Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee and co, and are presented as nothing but monstrous abominations who have little – emotionally, physically, dietary – in common with us homo sapiens.
Maintaining a comic book aesthetic, Stewart remains faithful to Hyung Min-woo‘s source material even so far as flying the creator to the set to assist with designs. This translates though into a film which, while undoubtedly ‘cool’ looking, suffers with a lack of emotion and characterisation. Set in an alternate reality it is, yet this is one that is detached totally from ours and as such lacks any of the emotional investments required to pull an audience in. The aforementioned seriousness is also a problem – 80s-styled one-liners delivered without irony or humour (thus becoming unintentionally quite funny) – with Stewart perhaps striving for a worthier virtue than his popcorn screenplay provides for.
To compound the pervading moodiness, Stewart also takes a video-game approach that dilutes the potency of the action sequences, stripping them of any threat, danger or, particularly, suspense; Mad Max-aping desert-set automobile mash-ups give way to Matrix-influenced gravity-defying leaps, with no sense of anyone ever being in any real danger, whether their neck is exposed or not. The vamps too, much like Will Smith‘s sunlight-phobic foes in I Am Legend, suffer from being wholly-CG built. No matter how detailed their computer-effects skin and bodies might be may be (Stewart’s background is in VFX before he made the leap to feature helmer), their on-screen presentation lacks authenticity, again struggling to convince our reality-wise minds they pose any threat at all.
Stewart does assemble a good cast though, who amiably throw themselves into the whole shebang, but you can’t help feel that a film like this should just be more fun. Fighting demonoid vamps while racing suped-up jet-bikes in a western-alternate reality cyberpunk future – this should be a genre fan’s wet dream. Instead it comes across as another Jonah Hex-alike folly. But less fun.
By David Walls.
Priest is out now courtesy of Sony Pictures.