Priest

Cast:
Paul Bettany as Priest
Karl Urban as Black Hat
Cam Gigandet as Hicks
Maggie Q as Priestess
Lily Collins as Lucy Pace
Brad Dourif as Salesman
Stephen Moyer as Owen Pace
Christopher Plummer as Monsignor Orelas
Alan Dale as Monsignor Chamberlain
Mädchen Amick as Shannon Pace
Jacob Hopkins as Boy
Dave Florek as Crocker
Joel Polinsky as Dr. Tomlin
Josh Wingate as Familiar
Jon Braver as Familiar

Directed by Scott Stewart

Story:
Years after the war between humans and vampires has come to an end thanks to the aid of specially-trained Warrior Priests, the humans are living in large cities sheltered by the Church and the Priests have been disbanded. When a former Priest (Paul Bettany) learns his niece Lucy (Lily Collins) has been taken by vampires, he joins with a local sheriff (Cam Gigandet) to get her back, going against the commands of the Church who took away the Priests’ powers.

Analysis:
Maybe my expectations were lowered from seeing Scott Stewart’s previous movie “Legion” last year or maybe I didn’t know exactly what to expect from this genre-melding action movie based on a little-known Korean comic reprinted here by Tokyopop. Sure, one can scoff at the thought of yet another movie involving vampires but like the recent “Stake Land,” the premise is a solid one taking place in a dystopian world following a war between humans and vampires and telling a familiar story in a new setting.

The backstory is shown in a cool opening animation that’s gorier than one might expect leading to the introduction of Paul Bettany’s character now living as an outcast among the humans in Cathedral City. When he learns his niece Lucy (Lilly Collins) has been abducted by a group of vampires, despite them being thought extinct, he goes off with her boyfriend, Sheriff Hicks (Cam Gigandet) to try to retrieve her before she’s infected as a vampire herself. Bettany’s nameless Priest has been tormented by dreams of a mission to a vampire hive that went horribly wrong, losing one of his allies, and he goes against the wishes of The Church by leaving Cathedral City to save his niece.

With impressive environments that immediately remind one of futuristic sci-fi film from “Blade Runner” to “Dark City” to “Equilibrium,” it’s clear that we’re in for a movie that’s far bigger in scale than anything we might be expecting. It’s plenty derivative of everything from Sergio Leone Westerns to Francis Lawrence’s “Constantine,” but somehow all the divergent pieces are combined into something that’s quite entertaining in its own way. While it’s very much fashioned like a classic Western, the feel of the action puts it more in the vein of “The Matrix” and the CG vampires, eyeless beasties that bare little semblance of humanity, offer plenty of jump scares whenever they appear.

The biggest fault with the movie is the dialogue, and the performances aren’t much better since the entire cast delivers every line in such a serious way, trying to add weight to dialogue that is clearly flawed. Bettany growls every line through his teeth like a cross between Clint Eastwood and Keanu Reeves, yet it brings a mysterious charm to the character, and Karl Urban makes a great nameless villain, also in the Leone vein with his black hat and his face mostly covered in shadows. Maggie Q plays down her looks as a Warrior Priestess who has more than a few cool action moments, while Christopher Plummer brings just the right amount of scenery-chewing to his role as the head cardinal. Playing the quintessential damsel in distress, Lilly Collins doesn’t have enough to do here to show us whether she’s an ingénue-in-training or just another pretty young thing.

That just leaves Cam Gigandet, the worst casting of the bunch with his Sheriff Hicks being a fairly charmless and flat character, and his delivery of the dialogue not helping it very much. The fact there isn’t more focus on Lucy and Hicks being reunited, which one assumes was the whole point of his quest to save her, makes for a major plothole that’s not easily excused. Likewise, Brad Dourif’s traveling salesman character seems to serve little purpose and he’s quickly forgotten.

Even with these very obvious problems, Scott Stewart shows himself to be a strong filmmaker with a clear knack for creating cinematic visuals and exciting action scenes. What Stewart really has going for him this time is a talented crew who help create an expansive scale to the movie with brilliant world construction and creature design that far exceeds anything in “Legion,” presumably helped by a larger budget. Besides creating vast spaces using a combination of sets and CG, Stewart’s team create solid CG creatures more on par with those in “Lord of the Rings” than some of the cheesier one we’ve seen. DP Don Burgess makes this one of Screen Gems’ best-looking movies to date and also one of the biggest, while composer Christopher Young delivers a suitably bombastic score that really gets the adrenaline flowing. Both help make the movie sit well alongside any other $100 million plus summer blockbuster.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the problems with converted 3D, but those aren’t present here; in some ways, the movie thrives on the fact that it looks like it was shot on film–we have no idea whether that’s the case–and then converted afterwards, and the 3D effects aren’t overused but add enough dimensionality to enhance the experience rather than detract from it.

There is certainly some silly “what the?” moments, especially if you forget this is first and foremost a fantasy film, but there are more than enough impressive action set pieces that will sate even the most finicky action fan’s expectations that those are forgotten. At times, it’s surprising the movie was able to get away with a PG-13 rating considering how gory it is, although one imagines an R-rated version might have gone over even better.

Unlike Phillip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” books, the religion and faith in the story isn’t used in either an ironic or derogatory way. These priests really believe in God, even if the church itself has usurped their power to try to control them to go against their beliefs. The fact we see them praying a number of times before going into battle with their foes reminds us that these are priests not only in name but in practice. It’s a nice touch in a film that clearly takes its premise seriously.

The Bottom Line:
Is “Priest” derivative? Yes. Is it full of genre clichés? Sure. But it’s admirable how a movie with so many obvious influences and references can offer an experience that still feels like its own thing. It’s one of the strongest and best-looking action movies from Screen Gems since the first “Underworld” and like that movie, one leaves it hoping to see more of this world and characters.

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