Priest (2011)

Reviewed By Daniel Kelly
Posted 05/12/11 07:10:20

"God hates Paul Bettany"
1 stars (Total Crap)

Last year director Scott Stewart debuted with “Legion”, a schlocky, biblically themed thriller that encouraged an unhealthy amount of critical scorn. I personally thought "Legion" was a reasonably entertaining affair, limited for sure, but not without its own trashy set of charms. The same can’t be said for his sophomore effort “Priest”, a frightfully stale and derivative picture, low on both personality and creativity. Adapted from a series of Korean comic books, the film misfires at virtually every juncture, including limp attempts at spectacular action and thinly veiled commentary on the dangers of religious fanaticism.

Years after winning an elongated war against the vampires, humanity has largely retreated into huge walled cities, the Church having taken full command of these industrialized sanctuaries. When a Priest (Paul Bettany) hears that his niece (Lily Collins) has been abducted by the supposedly contained vampire menace, he relinquishes his vows, deciding to pursue her captors. Along with a law enforcer named Hicks (Cam Gigandet), he discovers the demons are still very much active and being commanded by some new unknown enemy. Making matters worse is The Church itself, outraged by the Priest’s dissent, they send a group of equally lethal clerics to retrieve, and if necessary, kill him.

“Priest” begins with a chunk of nicely animated exposition, explaining the back-story in very visual terms, thusly saving audiences from having to digest dry monologues or clichéd narration. However that’s about the only genuinely clever thing it does for the entirety of its concise 87 minute runtime. The plotting is unoriginal and simplistic, ditto for characterization, something that seemingly wasn’t on the filmmaking agenda much during production. It’s a banal and sleepy actioner, chocked with achingly familiar set pieces and overly austere interplay between the cardboard cutout protagonists. I’d like to think that at one point Stewart wanted the movie to be fun, but somewhere along the way, any hope of that was sacrificed in favour of a laughably pretentious tone.

Bettany is clearly above this nonsense, but that doesn’t stop him from delivering a dull leading performance. The British thespian can’t overcome the picture’s hackneyed dialogue, and rarely expresses anything other than stern despair. Bettany takes “Priest” unjustifiably seriously; the actor clearly convinced the film has a shot at becoming a genre classic. He’s wrong. From a purely aesthetical viewpoint “Priest” does bare some resemblances to “Blade Runner” and “The Matrix”, but that’s where the similarities end. Whilst those movies boasted revolutionary concepts and startling ideas, “Priest” is totally hollow, save for its halfhearted on the nose swipes at organized religion. “Priest” culminates without making a single worthwhile comment on the problems imposed by theocracy, instead opting to depict the Church leaders as stubborn pantomime villains. It’s a clumsy pratfall, and one that only further compounds the picture’s uselessness.

The screenplay hardly bothers to grant the characters heartbeats, and the few attempts at doing so are generally very artificial. Bettany is laboured with both a mysterious secret and a crude love interest (a lifeless Maggie Q), the filmmakers using these lazy narrative tools to try and infuse a little soul into proceedings. Of course they fail resoundingly, as they also do when trying to concoct a worthwhile bad guy. Karl Urban does admittedly ham it up in the most forgettable fashion possible, but seriously, what arc does he even have in “Priest”? All I registered was something about a vampire queen and a cleansing of the world’s sin, Urban murkily confessing his vague intentions shortly before the bombastic finale.

On a practical level the action segments are well choreographed, but they never feel involving thanks to the dearth of relatable characters. Stewart originally worked as a special effects artist, so it’s no real surprise to find the CGI in “Priest” pretty robust, even if the bland monster designs aren’t. Apparently the project’s release was delayed multiple times, Screen Gems eventually placing it in a prime summertime slot. This I can’t fathom, because against the titans of blockbuster season, this subpar and punishingly asinine effort doesn’t have a prayer.

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