By JAMES TUCKER
Starring: Paul Bettany, Karl Urban, Cam Gigandet
Directed by Scott Stewart
Written by Cory Goodman, Min-Woo Hyung
Produced by Screen Gems, Michael De Luca Productions, Stars Road Entertainment
It’s been a while since I reviewed a flick that was just insane good fun. I think that’s why I picked PRIEST to be the first film I covered this week, hoping to get us off on the right foot. A vampire hunting priest, excommunicated from his order and forced to go against everything he believes to do what’s right? Seemed like a solid bet.
Unfortunately, PRIEST is as mediocre as they come; it’s not without some entertainment value, but it’s shortcomings far outweigh even it’s batshit premise. Let’s dig into it.
PRIEST follows the titular character (Paul Bettany) as he breaks his covenant with the church to go find the vampire clan who killed his brother’s family and abducted his niece Lucy (Lily Collins). He is joined by Sheriff Hicks (Cam Gigandet) and a Priestess from his order who he MAY have a thing for (Maggie Q) as he investigates the fledgling vampire menace. Vampires have long been thought to have been rounded up by the church, held on reservations where humans can go and become familiars if they wish; the church refuses to accept that a menace exists out there that they can’t control, and so attempt to stop the Priest from “causing panic.” Little do they both know that one of their own has been turned (Karl Urban) and seeks to bring the age of the church to an apocalyptic, bloody end.
“PRIEST could be passable, were it not for the pacing issues, awful dialogue, and the film’s botched attempt to reinvent vampires.”
PRIEST is not a good film. Full stop. It has a few redeeming qualities, but those are largely outweighed (in my opinion) by the sometimes truly awful dialogue, the jump-cutty action editing, the strange (and somewhat uneven) pacing, and a main character who feels more like a religious B.J. Blazkowicz than a character in his own right. Stewart does his best to make you care for this character, revealing there’s more to his motivation near the end of the film, setting him up with a forbidden romance subplot, and giving him PTSD flashbacks that show the origin story of the film’s villain and add some emotional stakes to their final showdown. If you look past the fact that Bettany’s character talks like Christian Bale’s Batman and a lot of the developments regarding his character are clichés in their own right, there seems to be a lot here on the surface. But something about this film feels rushed, empty; it says quite a bit about this character’s development, for example, that he never gets a name. More generally, they did their best to cram a bunch of information about the world and it’s characters into this 87 minute action flick, but in doing so they often introduced a bunch of batshit ideas without taking the time to fully develop them; that leaves us with both too much and not enough information simultaneously. Certain plot points and conflicts are also foreshadowed with all the subtlety of a nuclear explosion: one such conflict is the issue of what the Priest will do when he finds Lucy, a question that her boyfriend Sheriff Hicks asks him at least twice even after he gets the answer. Each instance feels shoehorned in, much like the church’s signature catchphrase; the phrase “to go against the church is to go against God” is repeated to such an obnoxious extent that it’s like the film is spoon feeding me, asking “do you get that they’re evil yet? Do you?”
Maybe the most unforgivable thing this film does is what it does to vampires. Vampires in this film are uninteresting, sightless CG monsters who can only move in concentric circles, bearing a strong resemblance to the imps from the Doom games in both their number and expendability. The singular exception to this is “Black Hat,” a Priest who was captured and turned by the “Vampire Queen” (cause they’re like aliens now, I guess) into the first human vampire. He comes to embody an alternate philosophy to the church, proclaiming that a vampire’s soul is purer than a human’s and that satisfying one’s every sinful desire is the best way to live. The history between the two characters is never really delved into except through the Priest’s flashbacks, and the final battle between the two doesn’t really dig into the emotional stakes the film had been building to throughout; it exists more for the PRIEST to engage with and terminate this alternate philosophy while he negotiates a position between the authoritarian, “sacrifice thyself whilst I sacrifice nothing” position of the church and the “I want it all” philosophy of his former coworker. And I would have had more time for this typical “church bad, religion good” messaging if I had felt there had been any payoff otherwise from the climax of this film, or if the film’s execution up to this point didn’t leave me alternating between confusion and exasperation. There are a couple of decent action scenes that provided decent entertainment value, and the world of PRIEST is so inherently batshit that I was interested in learning more; but by and large, I didn’t find myself enjoying this film.
Doing some basic research on the film reveals that PRIEST is very loosely based off of a manhwa but has nothing to do with its founding work, set far in the future of the manhwa’s world. That shows. I’m giving PRIEST a 4, and that only because I understand that maybe if you turn your brain off this might be a halfway decent action flick. The batshit factor saves this movie from becoming unwatchable, and there were at least two stunts that pulled me from the brink of turning the film off and watching something else. There are still better things to watch on Netflix, but this might not be a bad time for everybody.