REVIEW: Church or Vampires? Priest Dares to Ask What's Worse
Opening today in theaters, the 3-D action curio Priest seems to have designs on a pair of audiences once thought irreconcilable: Young, overserved vampire-genre devotees; and the older, Christian demographic that loves its religious mythology with a healthy side of moralized violence. Each has their blockbusters, and ne'er the bloody twain shall meet. Until now.
Except that historically the vampire genre is anchored in Christian faith. Humans meet their undead nemeses with crosses and holy water, superstitions and the enduring (if periodic) promise of sunlight. Stakes are ritually driven through hearts. Vampires are evil not because they threaten our lives, but because of their threat to extend it indefinitely on Earth -- a clear defiance of God's law, and an abomination for which they must die. Based on the hit Korean manwha series by Hyung Min-woo and directed by Scott Stewart, Priest offers a world in which centuries of war between humans and vampires -- a holy war not so dissimilar to the Crusades -- is finally ended by a legion of kick-ass men (and, quite radically, at least one woman) of the cloth. As if it could have ended any other way.
But what follows -- and where Priest begins -- refracts the genre into something a little more advanced for an era that's a lot more cynical. These heroic priests return from battle tormented, socially outcast and virtually unemployable. They're subject to menial labor and years of nightmares. The crosses tattooed on their foreheads only worsen their pariah status. The broodiest of them all, known simply as, well, Priest (Paul Bettany), stalks through the confines of Cathedral City -- a walled, dystopic church-state in thrall to Monsignor Orelas (a chalky Christopher Plummer) and subject to clockwork prayers and video confession booths outfitted with voice-ID software. His brother Owen (Stephen Moyer), meanwhile, inhabits the wasteland beyond the city, a parched, post-apocalyptic frontier in reverse where sustenance and hope are rare but at least the bloodsuckers have been confined to reservations.
Or so he thought until a vampire horde besieges him and his family one night. Its mission: Kidnap fetching, virginal daughter Lucy (Lily Collins) in a plot to draw Uncle Priest out of retirement and into the trap of sinister vampire leader Black Hat (Karl Urban), a one-time priest himself who has a score to settle with his former comrade. No sooner has Lucy's lawman sweetheart Hicks (Cam Gigandet) landed on Priest's doorstep with the news than the holy man goes rogue, defying church orders and peeling across the landscape on his hyperspeed nitrocycle to rescue Lucy from mortal enemy clutches. After all, this is no job for the cops. It never is.
To Stewart and screenwriter Cory Goodman's credit, the whole set up takes about 10 minutes flat, leaving Priest's remaining 77 minutes to the dark, desolate action at hand. Even more to their credit, there's something evocative in that darkness, something poetic in its desolation. The action is fine, too; the vampires themselves shriek from sharp, slimy maws, tear-assing through space and flesh alike with sinewy grace. (It's the humans' talents -- the airborne rock-stepping, the vertical hops -- that leave us chuckling.)
But Priest has some Western in its blood, too, and as its man with literally no name, Bettany leads a cast whose genre convictions transcend the hokey CGI and 3-D murk. He's an inversion of Bettany's self-flagellating psycho-cult thug from The DaVinci Code; this time around, Priest's faith is shakier than his psyche, and in those wounded eyes is the lament that his lifetime of sacrifice may have been in vain. He might have an ulterior motive or two for pursuing Lucy, but at the end of the day, this disconnected warrior is just who Priest is -- and neither the church nor the city nor the fragmented society of vampire-friendly "familiars" are prepared to recognize this specimen they've collaborated to create. "You like killing; it comes easy for you," Hicks observes after their first vampire rumble. "It just comes," Priest responds, ashen and ashamed. "Easy's got nothing to do with it."
Read into that metaphor what you will, but don't go much farther. The rest is all summer pulp, and engaging enough at that. The church dispatches Priestess (Maggie Q) to hunt Priest down, which, again, takes refreshingly little time -- as does their predictable if affecting romantic back story. Urban is all scenery-ravaging baddie, conducting entire town massacres with bendy, free-swinging limbs and rocketing toward Cathedral City in his epically imposing Freight Train of Vampire Death. He luxuriates in bad lines ("I can smell the blood running through your veins; it smells like dinner") and worse behavior, eventually revealing Black Hat's ambitions with sequel-assuring aplomb.
And you know what? I liked Priest, I liked Priest, and I wouldn't much mind any of these characters returning. The same goes for Scott Stewart; while on the one hand I've never seen a film like this whose scenes of idle exposition can be more visually confusing than its action sequences, on the other, Bettany has a rare thing in a director who seems to get him. All that intensity has a foundation in Stewart's camera, which loves a good close-up as much as (if not more than, honestly) a good effects shot. To borrow a description of one of Priest's weekend contemporaries, mid-budget 3-D summer vampire-action flicks don't have to suck. Or is it a faith-based priest-versus-evil flick? Who knows? Either way, it works.