Priest, based on the graphic novel by Min-woo Hyung, is a fun and stylish 3D adventure, one that artfully blends horror, science fiction, action, and just a little bit of western. It takes place in an alternate world, where humans and blind, beast-like vampires have been at war; to eradicate the menace – as explained in a very effective opening animated sequence – the Church created a society of assassin-like priests, whose weapons of choice are mix between crosses and ninja stars. Already, I like this premise. If there’s one thing actual priests are not known for, it would have to be attacking unholy creatures with the precision and nimbleness of martial arts instructors. With their fighting skills, their stealthy movements, and their tattooed foreheads and noses, these are probably the coolest priests ever to grace the silver screen.
The vampires are believed to be extinct. Much of the human population was destroyed. Most of those that survived were rounded up and placed in a fortress-like city, a cramped world of filthy technology and religion, it being under the control of the Church. Their motto: Go against the Church, and you go against God. What about the priests? They have essentially been left to fend for themselves, since they seem to have worn out their usefulness. This is where we find a character that isn’t given a name, except Priest (Paul Bettany). Somber and selective with his words, with a monotone voice reminiscent of Clint Eastwood, he’s plagued by nightmares of a failed attempt at raiding one of the vampire hives; it resulted in the loss of a friend, who was pulled out of his grasp.
One day, a sheriff from the desert outlands named Hicks (Cam Gigandet) comes knocking on his door. He has bad news: Priest’s brother and sister-in-law have been attacked, and his niece, Lucy (Lily Collins), has been kidnapped. In spite of what the Church would like the people to believe, the vampire menace is alive and well. Priest directly disobeys his monsignor (Christopher Plummer) and leaves the city, knowing it’s up to him to save his family before it’s too late. Sent to retrieve him are three fellow priests, led by Maggie Q, who’s well aware of the sacrifices they have all made when they were recruited as warriors. No one made a bigger sacrifice than Priest, and of that, I will say no more. It will inevitably come down to a final battle with the antagonist, a vampire/human hybrid known only as Black Hat (Karl Urban), aboard a high-speed train.
The film is directed by Scott Stewart, whose previous film, Legion, was almost universally panned by critics and audiences. I enjoyed it, although I admit that it was fatally flawed; I think I was reacting to it being released on the heels of the Hughes Brothers’ The Book of Eli, a religious fable I felt went a long way for very, very little. The message of Legion, it seemed to me, was more hopeful and infinitely more satisfying. Priest, despite its religious undertones, does not make any bold, controversial statements. Truth be told, I don’t think it was supposed to. It was made to be no more than what it is: A great-looking action and special effects extravaganza – an escapist film, like last summer’s surprisingly entertaining Jonah Hex. Not everything has to have a deeper meaning.
But I seem to have cornered myself with that last statement. Wouldn’t it be great if there were a deeper meaning? Aspects of the plot, most notably the influence and deception of the Church, were not examined at depth; I can’t help but wonder about all the exciting story possibilities that were overlooked. Perhaps there could have been parallels to actual Church-related atrocities, including the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials. The denial of the current vampire menace could have easily drawn parallel from the Church’s general dismissal of sex abuse charges. Movies are a lot more engaging when they somehow link themselves to current events; even though Priest is a post-apocalyptic fantasy, I think such a thing would have been possible.
Perhaps something more definitive will be explored in the next film, since this one makes it clear that there’s much more to Priest’s journey. This is assuming, of course, that this film will be successful enough to spawn a sequel. I admit that I have my doubts. Regardless, I will set them aside – take a leap of faith, if you will – and accept this film for what it is. Priest is not a great film, and it will never be seen as one, but I think it’s a lot better than its Rotten Tomatoes consensus would lead you to believe – currently, its approval rating is 19%. Perhaps I’m a cinematic apologist, but let it not be said that I don’t know how to have fun at the movies. Note: Isn’t it interesting that Paul Bettany, an actor known for his atheism, is often cast in religious roles?
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