Scott Stewart’s Priest is a series of disappointments. Karl Urban, playing one of the four underling priests serving under Paul Bettany’s capital-P Priest, delivers the first and most atrocious line reading about the safety of their blue-lit set piece. A film is bad when its first line sends its audience into blistering laughter. If only the rest of it was the same. Just as small-p priest voices his concern, a horde of CGI Voldemort-looking vampires come out, outnumbering the collared men, separating priest from Priest.
Adapted from Hyung Min-woo’s graphic novel, Priest relies on ineffective exposition to make the audience understand its sci-fi world. After the first battle scene, there’s a long series of wars between Christians and vampires depicted through animation. Eventually we learn of the context in which Priest lives, the peacetime between the humans and the bloodsuckers interrupted again when the latter kills the Priest’s brother and sister-in-law and kidnaps his niece. The kidnapping plot line makes this film another remake of The Searchers that Hollywood churns out every decade, the niece Lucy (Lily Collins) bearing the same name as the elder Edwards daughter. Both Lucys are screamers.
The rescue mission, mind bogglingly opposed by a Cardinal (Christopher Plummer) who might benefit from it, continues with the Priest, a cocky young sheriff/Jeffrey Hunter substitute named Hicks (Cam Gigandet) and a priestess (Maggie Q). Priest and Hicks, a contrast between young and old, are set-up for some buddy-cop chemistry that they don’t take advantage of. And of course, cue the revelations that these characters spill because fight scenes have to be punctuated by repetitive dialogue. Hicks talks about his secret engagement to Lucy. The priestess confesses her lust for Priest in the most unconvincing catharsis of sexual repression – it’s the future, let down your hair already!
It’s also unbelievable that a movie exists that both offends my Catholic and lapsed Catholic sides. The movie piles on a lot of references and themes, attempting to comment on the Catholic Church’s iron grip on people and their sexuality: the Church’s prejudices against Indigenous/New Age spirituality, infighting within the Church and its unexplained hierarchies, race relations – the vampires are exiled into desert ‘reservations,’ dangerous urban xenophobia aimed towards equally dangerous rural areas. The film doesn’t understand the complexities of the binaries in which these polar opposites are placed, and neither does it convince us to take its versions of those institutions seriously.
Priest is converted to 3D with a tolerable layering of spaces. The least problematic background is the ‘wasteland, a desert-colored white to emphasize the lack of nutrition in the soil, the white clothing of the rural women – Lucy and mother – symbolic of virginal and insipid purity. The rest of its visuals are a mess of aesthetics borrowed from previous films. The cities and the vampires’ hives have a boring blue hue so we remember that it’s science fiction. There are also characters dressed as Sith lords, Cowboys, Dickensian urbanites. It feels like an oblivious Halloween dinner party.
My previous sentence actually makes this movie sound fun, which it is admittedly. I knew going in that this wasn’t going to be good, and it met my expectations, and I was fine with that. Laugh at Karl Urban trying to be the poor man’s Timothy Oliphant, shrug off its derivative plot, watch an Asian priest showing off his Asian martial art skills and see him die before you get offended by the racial stereotype. It was one of those few instances when I was in a good mood to watch an otherwise irritating movie turn my brain into liquid mush. Although I am hesitant to recommend it to anyone, it really depends on your sense of humor.
Notes: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, disturbing images and brief strong language, 87 minutes.