It has been proclaimed that God is in everything, he is everything, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. This seems to be the strategy adopted by screenwriter Cory Goodman in adapting Min-Woo Hyung’s graphic novel Priest for the big screen. He didn’t just attempt to make a comic book summer blockbuster — he tried to fit every motherfucking genre into one single film. Priest is a miracle of excess, it is the world’s first post-apocalyptic sci-fi western horror vampire religious allegory film ever made. And it is an unholy fucking mess. It seems to borrow liberally and generously from various better films to create an ungodly gelatinous curd of cinema. Poor videogame action gets combined with characters overdramatically grunting out a slightly-modified version of the inspirational messages that executives have printed under pictures of eagles on mountains. The only joy I got out of watching the film was the unintentional irony of some of the casting choices in relation to their characters. Any opportunity to take one of the interesting subplots gets completely railroaded in the effort to dump a PG-13 3D summer flick on audiences before the better ones come along to claim their crown. If you suffer some sort of disease that forces you to watch anything with digital monsters fighting in blurry sci-fi environments, do all you can to avoid the temptation of this film. You’d be better off watching Resident Evil while listening to a loop of POD’s “Alive.”
In director Scott Stewart’s second attempt to murder poor Paul Bettany with a shitty pseudo-religious horror-allegory, mankind has always been fighting vampires. And none of this Cosmo-cover shirtless mancandy, but horrible eyeless ghouls that lurk in darkness and move like demons. And the vampires started winning. So The Church created Priests, specially enhanced warriors armed with a combination of kung-fu fighting and the mod-crucifix arsenal from Castlevania. And the Priests go medieval on the vamps, making them all know their name is the LORD while they bring vengeance and so forth. The vamps are relegated to reservations in the outlands while the rest of humanity lives in vast walled Blade Runner/Dark City knock-off citadels under the
protection vise-like panicky grip of The Church. Now that their uses have passed, the Priests are cast off like Vietnam vets to find work elsewhere, though as most kids find out these days, no one’s hiring anyone with a giant crucifix tattooed on their foreheads.
All of this is explained in a rapid-fire anime-style sequence in the intro, which is easily the best part of the entire film. It sets up the evil corruption of a theocracy, it sets up the world of Cowboys vs. Vampires and living in isolated protection, it sets up the premise of what basically amounts to religious-based Terminators — though they are closer to Kurt Russell’s Soldier if anything else. But all of that gets flushed so they can focus on the ridiculous damsel in distress plot, which feels like a detective procedural where you expect Bettany to come in and hurl his collar and badge on the Monsignor’s desk and go vigilante, Dirty Leviticus style or some shit.
Instead, exposition flips past Fifty-Two Pick-Up style in approximately fifteen scenes amounting to eight minutes of screen time or so. We open on a vampire hive as a group of Priests are coming to clean it out. Priest (Paul Bettany) and the Priestess (Maggie Q) realize it’s a trap before the trap is sprung. As they escape, Priest grabs on to his fellow priest (Karl Urban) but loses his grip Cliffhanger style and Dr. McCoy becomes a Lunchable. After our snazzy intro and some Midnight Cowboy wand’rin’ by Priest, we go to one of the outposts, manned by Owen Pace (Stephen Moyer) and his wife Shannon (Madchen Amick) and daughter Lucy (Lily Collins). Lily was out gallivanting with her beau in the city, much to the chagrin of her papa, when…OHSHITVAMPIREHERDZOMG! Lily gets kidnapped and her beau turns out to be the Boy Scout faced sheriff of the outpost, Hicks (Cam Gigandet). Hicks then seeks out the help of Owen’s brother, who turns out to be, The Priest! He convinces him to help. The Priest goes to get reinstated by the Monsignors, who refuse to believe that the vampires are a real danger. After all, they’ve been put on reservations, why the hell would they be a danger? So Priest does his “take my badge, hombre” routine to Monsignor Orelas (Christopher Plummer) and Monsignor Chamberlain (Alan Dale), and they try to arrest him with stormtroopers. Priest beats them up, escapes, and then cruises out on a nifty spacebike to the Outpost to exhibit some street justice.
I’m taking way more time to explain this than the film does. It finally settles into a western horror of sorts at this point — kind of The Searchers meets Justin Cronin’s The Passage. Paul Bettany spends the film playing his Opus Dei character from The Da Vinci Code only with Christian Bale’s Batman Begins growl. Cam Gigandet does a neat imitation of Ryan Kwanten’s Jason Stackhouse from “TrueBlood,” except his pussy-ass sheriff spends most of the movie being contradictory. He begs Priest to help him, only to threaten him at gunpoint at least once every ten minutes that he best not kill Lucy is she’s gone vamp. The Priestess and a gang of Priests are sent to chase down Priest and bring him back dead or alive. I don’t understand why the Monsignors have such an altarboy itch over Priest killing vamps. It’s not like he’s some sort of vaunted celebrity that will go around town heralding it. He’s the Man Without A Name. But anyone, it gives Maggie Q a chance to do some kung-fu killing, and she claims the best murder in the film.
I’ve railed against 3D before, and it’s just as unnecessary here. Even more so. Somewhere, there exists an R-rated cut of this film. Some of the fight sequences play out so scene-missing supercutted, you almost expect one of the monsters to yell out “Fargin’ Icehole! Mothertrucker!” before succumbing. In fact, one of the deaths is so poorly acted, it rivals Paul Reubens getting a ruler to the heart in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But for once, I don’t think ultraviolence could have saved this. Everyone’s so goddamn serious and everything is overacted and convoluted and mishmashed, it doesn’t matter what happens. It’s such a chore getting through. If by now, you haven’t figured out that the ultimate villain, the guy who kidnapped Lucy, is Karl Urban, get out. Of the Internet. Get out. Sadly, Karl Urban makes for a shitty villain, but for a great possibility as Roland in the Dark Tower series if they ever make it. Which they won’t. Thank Christ.
I’m sorry if this reads so scattershot, but that’s how the film plays. It flies through the intro to get into the meat of the story which basically involves them traveling from outpost to reservation to city to runaway train (never coming back, one way on a one way track), while Bettany kills vampires with his Priest weapons. I thought maybe they’d do some religious allegory, or at least make the weapons interesting. There’s literally a part where, when surrounded by encroaching vampires, The Priest pulls out a Bible and begins reading “Yea, though I walk through the blah blah sacraments” and then flings up a cloud of mini metal crucifixes, which then turn into throwing stars, which he then begins slow-mo hurling at the vamps. Sacrilege! I thought there’d be more scripture floating around or something with them being actual priests beyond the fact that they have big facecrosses and that their knives all look like crosses.
The only parts I enjoyed I brought with me in my cinematic knowledge and through strange casting. We’ve already gone over Bettany playing yet another priest on a mission from God. But there’s the delicious irony of Bill Compton getting murderized by vampires that you can’t overlook. It’s almost as fun as Frozen, where Iceman and Air Bud’s owner get frozen to death and eaten by wolves. Or the fact that the evil domineering villainous Monsignor is played by Christopher Plummer, who was the wicked sinful priest in Dragnet. At that point, it became impossible not to refer to Lucy as The Virgin Connie Swail. Also, Brad Dourif’s in this as a
snake-oil holy water huckster. There’s a bit of irony in the doctor from “Deadwood” playing a shifty faker, but mostly, I just love me some Brad Dourif.
Priest is clearly hankering to be a trilogy, or at the very least a franchise, but unless a miracle happens, this film will go straight to hell and never return. Oddly, though, I am curious to see if Bettany and Stewart team up for a third bad-religious-horror film. Maybe this one will be set in a Vegas mall, where demons are trying to murder a child bride as she tries to get a quicky chapel wedding. At the very least, we’ll know it’ll be too dark to see anything happening.