At some point during the last two years, Director Scott Stewart and actor Paul Bettany got together and decided that obviously Bettany was the new Clint Eastwood and subsequently turned out two supernaturally tinged westerns. Legion was bloody awful and squandered a good premise with a terrible script and laboured direction. I’m happy to report that Priest is a step up for the duo, but only in the way that eating dog poo is preferable to catching the Ebola virus.
Priest takes place in a gloomy future where a war with vampires has decimated much of society. Eventually for a reason never explained and one that doesn’t actually make sense, vampires are sent off to live in specific walled off zones in the desert. The ninja like Priests are retired from their vampire slaying as they're no longer appears to be a vampire menace. The cities that remain are lorded over by The Clergy and citizens are frequently told to obey the will of god through propaganda adverts featuring Christopher Plummer. Out in the desert wastelands a young girl is kidnapped by a vampire known only as ‘black hat’ (Karl Urban) who then keeps her in a cage and carts her around on a vampire infested train. A young sheriff from the desert (Cam Gigandet) hunts down a priest (Paul Bettany) as he is the girl’s uncle and the only one who can bring her back. Priest is brought out of retirement much to the clergy’s disapproval and heads off into the desert to find his missing niece. The Clergy despatches some other priests including a terribly miscast Maggie Q to bring back the rogue priest dead or alive.
Priest starts off quite well. The city is well presented and there are a couple of street scenes right out of Blade Runner, in fact they are so alike that there could be a court case. There is also a quite nifty animated prologue detailing the history of the human-vamp war and the priesthood which sets the tone nicely. When Cam Gigandet shows up as a sheriff (also terribly miscast) and there is a fight in a bar you start to think that this may actually turn out to be an okay guilty pleasure with impressive production design. Then about thirty minutes in it all falls apart.
The problem with vampires is they have to obey certain rules. You have the typical rules we all know and love; sunlight, crucifixes, garlic and whatnot but every now and then someone clever comes along and puts a new spin on things. I’m thinking the absence of the soul angle as seen in Buffy and Angel. Priest has absolutely no rules whatsoever, or if it does they are never very well explained. During an extended battle scene on a moving train I suddenly realised that this vampire was in bright desert sunshine and was not even squinting his eyes. There is also the introduction of the concept of vampire ‘familiars’ who are bald ugly half vampires that swarm all over the desert. This concept is tossed away in favour of more CGI nonsense when there is a whole scene in a town made up of these folk which would have been more interesting than what actually happens.
Now the problem with humans is that we have to obey certain rules, gravity, and physics and so on. You can be the most gifted martial artist in the world but you still do not have the power of flight no matter how floaty your cloak. In Priest it seems that the rules of physics simply don’t apply so you have ridiculous scenes where the Priest takes out a bunch of bad guys before something he has thrown in the air hits the floor. It serves no narrative purpose apart from making the 12 year old who watches it think it’s cool and then injure himself leaping from the top of the stairs. After about seven or so of these sorts of scenes I completely tuned out because there was no threat, there was nothing to be afraid of. With no rules the screenplay meanders all over the shop and becomes just an incoherent collection of scenes. It also falls victim to what so many films do nowadays; it feels a lot like a Playstation 3 game. The vampire creatures look just like the nicely rendered beats from recent games such as Prototype and the moves our heroes perform are right out of games like Darksiders or Devil May Cry. If you want to be a video game then be a video game but don’t be something that doesn’t respond when I move my control pad because it’s just annoying.
There is an attempt at some characterisation and depth with Cam Gigandet and Maggie Q’s characters but they are so miscast and have zero chemistry with any of the other performers that it just rings false. Paul Bettany puts the arse in bad arse and should really start looking to get a new agent because he is not doing himself any favours with these films.
Priest is a pretty looking failure but a failure on almost every level. There is probably a good story to be told in this initially fascinating world but this isn’t it.
Extras: Director/actor commentary, Deleted and Extended Scenes, Creating the world of Priest featurette and the weapons and vehicles of Priest featurette.
Priest is out now on DVD/Blu-ray