PLOT: PRIEST, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller, is set in an alternate world -- one ravaged by centuries of war between man and vampires. The story revolves around a legendary Warrior Priest (Paul Bettany) from the last Vampire War who now lives in obscurity among the other downtrodden human inhabitants in walled-in dystopian cities ruled by the Church. When his niece (Lily Collins) is abducted by a murderous pack of vampires, Priest breaks his sacred vows to venture out on a quest to find her before they turn her into one of them. He is joined on his crusade by his niece's boyfriend, a trigger-fingered young wasteland sheriff (Cam Gigandet), and a former Warrior Priestess (Maggie Q) who possesses otherworldly fighting skills.
REVIEW: Let me begin this with a bit of harsh truth: I fully expected PRIEST to suck. No lies. The last film from the director/star duo of Scott Stewart and Paul Bettany was the thoroughly disappointing 2010 pic LEGION and PRIEST was their return to the sci-religious genre (Is that a genre? If not, it is now thanks to these two pics). Couple that with the fact that I’ve never read the Korean comic series on which this is based and the fact that Screen Gems decided to slap a coat of post-conversion 3D paint on this before sending it off to theaters and you’ve got yourself a disaster waiting to happen.
Considering all those immediate demerits, can somebody tell me how PRIEST ended up being so damn good? Yeah, I said it. Good. As in, really good. Probably helps to have an affinity for overblown sci-fi epics (fans of Vin Diesel’s RIDDICK pics should really dig this) when heading in, but I can’t imagine why this wouldn‘t play well with audiences. One might think that the whole “religious” angle might be why critics (19% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) and audiences (flick opened at #4 and is dropping fast) have dismissed this, but these bits (unlike the heavy-handed stuff presented in LEGION) are mostly of the visual variety (very V FOR VENDETTA) and serve only to establish the sense of Jedi-like isolation that the titular Priests must endure.
Personally, I’m a big fan of pics that present a lone hero standing up against a totalitarian future regime bent on controlling the populace with their corrupted word. Especially ones that have Christopher Plummer as the leader that our hero (I’m talking about Bettany, in case you didn’t already know) must stand against. Reminds me of STAR CRASH and I’m always a little bit cheerier when I'm reminded of that glorious slice of cinematic cheese.
I’m also a big fan of flicks that blend multiple genres together. PRIEST is a sci-western horror epic with bits of THE ROAD WARRIOR, SERENITY, BLADE RUNNER, STAR WARS and even THE SEARCHERS thrown in for good measure. There’s even a brilliant animated opening credits sequence (done by Genndy Tartakovsky of SAMURAI JACK fame) and a teeny-tiny musical interlude that features baddie Black Hat (the always welcome Karl Urban) conducting an entire symphony of destruction as his minion vampires decimate an outpost town. Oh and did I mention the sweet sexual chemistry between Bettany and fellow ass-kicker Maggie Q? Good stuff and there’s a history between these two characters that makes me long for a PRIEST prequel that details their earlier adventures during the war.
Speaking of which, I love the lived-in look of PRIEST. Everything feels real and used. The motorcycles the Priest’s ride are grimy and dark, sporting all manner of nifty tech details (loved the oxygen masks used to protect them while traveling through the desert). Even the costumes are period perfec…well, think Old West meets Post-Apocalyptic and you’ll get what they were going for here. The universe that Stewart crafts here is a real…scratch that, not real, but real-ish. As real a universe that consists giant mega-cities (shades of BLADE RUNNER) and desert outposts (shades of any western made in the last hundred years) can be. Time and effort was taken to make this film look used and it does, far better than any of the CG-encrusted shiny landscapes of the STAR WARS prequels. Even better than other post-apocalyptic epics like BOOK OF ELI and TERMINATOR: SALVATION. Those movies suffered from “movie pretty” devastation. PRIEST does not.
Performance-wise, we’re definitely in B-movie land here. Not a complaint, but something you need to know going in. There’s nothing resembling a fully-realized character here but the heroes are heroes and the villains are villains. Hell, the main baddie actually wears and is called Black Hat. It doesn’t get much more Western than that. Bettany is a solid lead, but he’s really just rehashing his LEGION performance with a little less talky-talky and more kicky-kicky. Get it? Enjoyed Cam Gigandet as the Sheriff, though I grew tired of him constantly doubting Bettany’s Priest. Doesn’t this guy know that the Priest is the hero of this picture and that he isn’t going to lead you astray? Maggie Q rounds out our trio and is a welcome addition. The chemistry these three have is the stuff great B-movies are made of.
Make no mistake, PRIEST is very much a big-budget B-movie. A guilty pleasure, if you will. Yes, you’ve seen the plot here a thousand times and you’ll probably guess every single beat as they occur. And yes, some of the performances (I’m looking at you Lily Collins) are a touch on the cheesy side and might have you cringing just a little bit. And yes, yes, yes, the movie ends on a blatant sequel note and it will infuriate you because the sequel they are promising sounds pretty awesome and we might never get to see it thanks to the fact that this isn’t doing all that well at the box office. Lump this in with fellow guilty pleasures JUMPER, PUSH and I AM NUMBER FOUR in the category of “Awesome Movies That Never Spawned The Sequels They Deserved”.
But, for all the B-movie déjà vu that you’ll experience while watching PRIEST, none of it will matter because this is a fun little movie. The action is tuned to that perfect level of over-the-top, the performances are spot-on, the plot is fun in a familiar way and the look of the movie is just fantastic. And I haven’t mentioned the fact that the flick sports cameos from Stephen Moyer (of TRUE BLOOD fame), Madchen Amick (been in love with this gal since SLEEPWALKERS) and Brad Dourif (Chucky!). And seriously, Karl Urban absolutely rocks here. Rocks HARD. Dude probably isn’t on-screen for more than ten minutes and yet he manages to steal the entire show.
Entertainingly derivative and sprinkled with just the right amount of crazy, PRIEST is definitely worth checking out (I didn’t see the 3D version, so I can’t really comment on whether the format worked well or not). Summer movies don’t need to be high-art, they need only provide high-octane thrills and excitement. PRIEST does just that. Fully expect it to enter your “Guilty Pleasures” list. Five out of six adamantium bullets.