Being soldiers of God rocks. You get superhuman strength, speed, agility, and mastery of all kinds of cool bladed weapons in return for signing up. You can leap down great distances without hurting yourself, and you can do crazy wire-fu stuff like run on rocks your buddy throws into the air in your path. And then there are the cool poses. Once you’ve killed something, you qualify for some awesome post-kill poses. Of course, there are downsides, too. Like, they tattoo a big ass cross to your forehead. And you can’t get rid of it, either, not even after all that “soldier of God” stuff isn’t needed anymore. This will usually result in people not giving you jobs, and plus, little kids may point and laugh at you. Like I said, pros and cons.
“Priest” opens in appropriately comic book fashion (it is based on a comic book, after all), with a prelude that fills us in on the film’s alternate world history, where vampires have always existed and fought against man for centuries. Mankind finally gets the upper hand when they train super vampire killer badasses — aka the Priests, essentially God’s commandos. What little of the vampires that remain after the Priests win the war have been confined to “reservations” (though curiously, these reservations, housing killer vampires, are notoriously (re: crappily) guarded), while the bulk of humankind reside in walled in city-size monstrosities ruled with an iron fist by the Church, led by a stern and douchebaggey Christopher Plummer. There are also humans living beyond the walls, in what is known as the Wastelands, but they do so at their own risk. Life in the Wastelands is a hard one, no doubt. It’s kinda like how you’d imagine the early Western settlers trying to make their fortune, except, you know, instead of Indians they have to worry about vampires.
The Priest warriors themselves have been disbanded since the end of the vampire wars. Among them, Paul Bettany’s unnamed Priest and Maggie Q.’s unnamed Priestess. (You’d think having a bunch of Priests running around without names would become a little confusing. I mean, how do they communicate, especially in the battlefields? “Hey, you, go over there with that guy, and take that guy with you! And you, stay here with me! No, I mean you! The other one! With the cross! Wait, uh, the one with the slightly bigger cross!” etc.) When Priest Guy’s family, living in the Wastelands is attacked by vampires and their youngest daughter (Lily Collins) absconded by the nefarious Black Hat (Karl Urban), a former Priest turned Vampire, our hero resolves to retrieve her at all costs. Priestess Chick is then sent to bring him back, though she really doesn’t want to. You see, she sorta has feelings for him. Okay, so she’s like totally in love with him and everything. Having traveled to the Wastelands in his crazy souped up motorbike (powered by what looks like a jet engine with nitro option!), Priest Guy teams up with a Wasteland Sheriff, Hicks (Cam Gigandet), and Priestess Chick to save the day.
The first ten minutes or so of “Priest” are actually pretty good stuff. I liked the animated prelude, with its crazy bloodletting and battle scenes. The introduction of the movie’s Church-controlled world as a suffocating, “Do as we say or we’ll pretty much kill your ass” benevolent dictator harkens to a more God-obsessed “V for Vendetta”. And the automated video confessionals are especially hilarious additions. It’s also here where the production designs excel, and I suspect, much of the budget went. The ashen-covered skies provided by the city’s factories make for gloomy but inspired scenery, and the sight of the masses shuffling to and fro like mindless cattle, stopping only to listen to another one of Monsignor Douchebag’s sermons broadcasted on Jumbletrons are also nice touches. It’s too bad we couldn’t stay in the city forever. Sigh. But into the Wastelands we must venture!
At just barely 80 minutes of running time, “Priest” certainly isn’t heavy on the fat. The film has been edited to within an inch of its life, leaving behind mostly only the action sequences and just enough exposition to get us from one fight scene to the next, including a finale inside, on top of, and alongside a speeding train. In his second collaboration with Stewart (the duo having previously worked together on Bettany’s maiden voyage as an action hero, “Legion”), Paul Bettany is easily the best thing about “Priest”. His hero has weight and pathos, much of it purely from Bettany’s commitment to the character. His relationship (or lack thereof) with Maggie Q.’s Priestess is finely played by both actors, and gives some much needed humanity to the story. I honestly would have liked to spend even more time with these two as they try to awkwardly understand their feelings. Karl Urban, as the baddie, chews scenery, while I’m still not sure why Lily Collins is on the verge of becoming a big star. Apparently being Caucasian, pretty, and young gets you pretty far in Hollywood. Who would have thunk it.
Go into “Priest” for the crazy, CGI-souped up action, and stay for Paul Bettany trying his damnedest to sell a movie that needs all the help it can get. Plus, there are also those silly weightless CGI vampires to gawk at, which should make you wish for the days of stunt guys with fanged teeth. (It didn’t work for “I am Legend”, and weightless CGI vampires don’t work any better here, unfortunately.) I haven’t a clue how much of the Min-Woo Hyung comics were translated into movie form by screenwriter Cory Goodman, but the film certainly leaves room open for a sequel.
Scott Charles Stewart (director) / Cory Goodman (screenplay), Min-Woo Hyung (graphic novel series “Priest”)
CAST: Paul Bettany … Priest
Karl Urban … Black Hat
Cam Gigandet … Hicks
Maggie Q … Priestess
Lily Collins … Lucy Pace
Brad Dourif … Salesman
Stephen Moyer … Owen Pace
Christopher Plummer … Monsignor Orelas